State officials hear about coal ash contamination

By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer,

An attorney from the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) addressed the South Carolina Public Service Commission last Thursday about contamination at the H.B. Robinson plant near Hartsville, and information discussed at this public hearing revealed that plant owner Duke Energy sharply revised numbers regarding the amount of coal ash stored at that site.

SELC attorney Frank Holleman presented commissioners with records showing that Duke, in 2014, reported only 660,000 tons of waste in the plant’s ash basin, but updated data from Duke Energy’s website now claims about 4 million tons of ash is stored in that 55-acre dry pond.

SELC attorney Frank Holleman  Photos by Samantha Lyles

SELC attorney Frank Holleman
Photos by Samantha Lyles

The waste ash from Robinson’s coal-fired Unit 1 plant was first deposited in the 1960 fill area, a 25-acre disposal site located west of the coal plant. Subsequent deposits were placed in a dedicated ash basin, a 72-acre area with wet and dry disposal sites, constructed in the mid 1970s by damming an unnamed tributary to Black Creek. The basin received sluiced ash – mixed with water for wet disposal – until Unit 1 was decommissioned in October of 2012.

Holleman explained that high levels of arsenic are present in this coal ash waste, and noted that Duke has been cited by SC DHEC (Department of Health and Environmental Control) for contamination of groundwater with levels of arsenic far in excess of the safe drinking water numbers of 10 parts per billion. Holleman said tests conducted in December of 2014 showed at least one site with arsenic counts of 1,100 parts per billion.

Duke spokesperson Erin Culbert has told the News and Press that groundwater is not flowing toward plant neighbors, and there are no private groundwater wells located between the ash basin and Lake Robinson. She also noted that “the monitoring well they (SELC) reference is actually located inside the ash basin itself and does not represent groundwater conditions outside the basin.”

“We have been monitoring water quality in Lake Robinson since the 1970s. Lake water quality is good, with no concern for arsenic. Water quality sampling consistently shows arsenic levels are less than or near the laboratory detection limit of 0.5 parts per billion,” she added.

Holleman also told commissioners of several instances where low-level radioactive waste from Robinson’s nuclear plant was dumped into the coal ash basin. In July of 1980, former plant owner Carolina Power & Light transferred 3,000 cubic meters of slightly contaminated radioactive waste sediment into the ash pond without permission from SC DHEC or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The plant was cited for the violation.

SC Public Service Commissioner John E. "Butch" Howard (District 1)

SC Public Service Commissioner John E. “Butch” Howard (District 1)

On several other occasions, waste containing legally permissible levels of Cobalt-60 was disposed of in the ash pond. CP&L (which later became Progress Energy) obtained license from NRC for these disposals, which took place between 1983 and 1998.

Duke Energy’s Culbert told the News and Press that the practice was “acceptable” in the industry during that time, and the company is monitoring the ash basin to track the presence of Cobalt-60.

“There is no impact to the public from this material. In 2014, as part of the ash basin closure planning, about 40 soil samples were collected throughout the ash basin, and each sample showed less than detectable results for Cobalt-60,” Culbert explained.

She added that weekly collections of surface water, quarterly samples from groundwater monitoring wells, and semiannual shoreline sediment collections are “non-detectable” for Cobalt-60.

Some members of the Public Service Commission seemed alarmed by these long-standing problems, and commissioner Elizabeth Flemming expressed surprise that DHEC or the former plant owners hadn’t taken action sooner. Duke took corporate control of the Robinson Plant following a merger with Progress Energy in 2012.

“All of this has been known is certain very important regulatory circles since the 80s, and we’re just hearing about this today?” said Flemming. “I guess I’m having a problem just hearing ‘Duke, Duke, Duke,’ when all of this was known so many decades ago.”

Commissioner John E. “Butch” Howard asked Holleman about the likelihood such a flurry of public attention will propel Duke Energy to commit to a full and satisfactory clean-up of the Robinson ash basin.
“I am hopeful, but I am not confident,” replied Holleman. “As of December, 2014, Duke was unwilling to commit to remove this ash.”

Culbert, however, told the News and Press that a closure plan to safely clean up the ash basin is in development, and is due to be submitted to DHEC this November. The options for closure include a “cap-in-place” method wherein the ash is sealed on all sides with synthetic barriers (like concrete), and a more costly removal to dry lined storage either on or off the Robinson Plant site.

Holleman noted several times at the April 9 hearing that dry lined storage is safer and preferable, and he hopes Duke will choose this method.

Author: Duane Childers

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