South Carolina coal ash dump leaking arsenic into Wateree River

The morning after the CBS News program "60 Minutes" aired its investigation into the hazards of coal ash waste from coal-burning power plants, the people of South Carolina awoke to some worrisome news about coal ash close to home.

It turns out that runoff containing high levels of cancer-causing arsenic is seeping from an 80-acre coal ash waste dump at South Carolina Electric & Gas Co.'s Wateree coal-fired power plant in Richland County, S.C. and running into the nearby Wateree River, The State newspaper reports.

The site of the leak is just a few miles upstream from Congaree National Park, South Carolina's only national park and home to the largest tract of old-growth floodplain forest left in the United States. The leak is also in a rural area where many people depend on wells for drinking water.

SCE&G is part of the $9 billion South Carolina-based SCANA Corp., which also owns North Carolina-based PSNC Energy, a natural-gas utility.

J.C. Hare, a consultant working for a farmer who lives near the Wateree plant, told the paper he first noticed the stream of runoff that resembles a small creek last month. A consultant working for SCE&G has also noted the problem, according to the paper:

Their reports, to be discussed this week as part of a court case against the power company, raise new questions about SCE&G's ability to contain pollution on the property -- and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control's inability to stop the problem, critics say.

The case, which is being heard today in administrative law court, was brought by farmer Heath Hill, who's challenging state permits allowing SCE&G to put a massive new coal ash landfill at the site, which is near his property.

This is not the first contamination incident related to the ash dump at the Wateree plant. Arsenic seeping from the facility over the past 15 years has contaminated groundwater beneath the property at levels exceeding the federal safe drinking water standard, and seepage also has been found between the dump and the river.

In 2001, state regulators cited SCE&G for violating groundwater standards. But they did not fine the company, which said it would try to reduce the contamination.

Coal ash ponds have become a growing public concern since last December's massive coal ash spill from a Tennessee Valley Authority coal-fired power plant in eastern Tennessee. Coal ash is not regulated by the federal government as hazardous waste, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has promised to release new proposed federal regulations by year's end.

Meanwhile, another utility company is refusing to make safety upgrades to its coal ash dumps until regulators set out clear rules. Progress Energy of North Carolina has had several of its coal ash dumps receive "poor" safety ratings from the EPA, and the company has told the agency it want those ratings changed, the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer reports.

The "60 Minutes" investigation by reporter Lesley Stahl examined the Kingston disaster as well as the situation in Chesapeake, Va., where contamination has been documented from a golf course built on coal ash from a Dominion power plant.

Stahl also looked at recycling of coal ash into consumer goods as well as its use in agriculture, which as Facing South has reported is a particular concern for the Southeast and Midwest.