A fleet of trucks recently hauled more than 650,000 tons of coal ash from Duke Energy’s W.S. Lee Steam Station plant in rural Anderson County to a landfill in Homer, Ga. It’s an effort seen as a win for Upstate-based environmental groups concerned about chemical contamination of the bordering Saluda River.
“This first step makes this coal ash site safer and removes ash from unlined old pits right on the banks of the Saluda,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “As this cleanup moves forward, coal ash pollution of the Saluda River will drop.”
Duke Energy relocated the coal ash under the terms of a settlement negotiated in 2015 by SELC on behalf of Upstate Forever, the Greenville conservation group, and Save our Saluda, a citizens group that works to protect and restore water resources in the Saluda Watershed.
The W.S. Lee Steam Station facility, which is located in the small community of Belton, burned coal for decades. But then it switched to natural gas and Duke Energy began storing coal ash in three basins and two ash fill areas.
In 2015, the two conservation groups claimed the facility’s ash pits were dangerous because they were unlined and too close to the Saluda River.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 140 million tons of coal ash are generated each year. Coal ash contains several dangerous pollutants, including arsenic, mercury and chromium. The EPA has found that living near ash ponds increases the risk of damage from cadmium, lead and other toxic metals.
“The volume of toxic coal ash stored at these sites so close to the Saluda River was staggering,” said Melanie Ruhlman, president of Save Our Saluda. “Removal of the ash to safe lined storage facilities is a major accomplishment towards long-term improvement and protection of the river.”
Under the settlement terms, Duke Energy has five years to remove the coal ash from its ash pond and ash fill site on the banks of the Saluda River and 10 years to remove any remaining ash from the other unlined pits at the site.
So far, Duke Energy has removed more than 15 percent of the 3.6 million tons of coal ash stored at the Anderson County plant.
Danielle Peoples, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy, said the company plans to relocate at least 1.4 million tons of ash to the Georgia site this year. Duke Energy has more than 750,000 tons of coal ash to remove from its ash pond and ash fill site.
However, the company will be left with 2.2 million tons of coal ash.
On Tuesday, Duke Energy announced it would be applying for a permit through the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to build a 35-acre landfill on the Belton site. That new landfill will eventually hold the remaining 2.2 million tons of coal ash, according to Peoples.
Duke Energy had originally planned to submit its permit application this year, but DHEC requested more information about seasonal variations in groundwater levels. Now, the company has to wait until 2018 to submit an application.
Peoples said the company hopes to get the permit and construct the new onsite, lined landfill by 2019. She added that the delay in permitting wouldn’t affect the deadline for relocating the remaining ash.
The landfill will be constructed where the secondary ash basin is now. Duke Energy is planning to remove 29,000 tons of ash from that basin into the primary basin and then build the new on-site, lined landfill.
Once constructed, the landfill will be filled with the ash from the primary basin and large ash fill site nearby. It will feature multiple layers of synthetic and natural barriers, and coal ash will be stored with a protective capping system that separates it from the surrounding soil and groundwater.
In addition, Duke Energy plans to conduct “extensive groundwater monitoring” that ensures “the landfill operates as designed and the local environment remains protected,” according to a press release from the company.
“Our first priority is ensuring the continued safety of our neighbors and our environment,” said John Elnitsky, Duke Energy senior vice president of ash basin strategy. “We’re using a science-based plan, industry-proven technology and advanced engineering to site and construct this fully lined landfill.”
Duke Energy has also agreed to excavate and rebury coal ash from its closed Robinson Steam Plant in Darlington, South Carolina.