Southeast River Runs Part 5: Coal Ash on the Waccamaw River

Guest Blog | July 18, 2013 | Coal, Energy Policy

This is the fifth blog in a series featuring rivers of the Southeast endangered by toxic coal ash pollution. The rest of the series can be found here. Thanks to Christine Ellis, Waccamaw Riverkeeper, who contributed to this post.

A tidal river for 40 miles upstream of Winyah Bay, the Waccamaw feeds a complex system of wetlands, like this salt marsh. Source: Mike Covington

The Waccamaw River flows over 140 miles from Lake Waccamaw in North Carolina to Winyah Bay near Georgetown, South Carolina where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. Its watershed encompasses an area of 1,110 square miles. One of the country’s most scenic black water rivers, it is also one of the most biologically diverse watersheds in the U.S. This ecological gem is home to 280 threatened and endangered species and thousands of other species of native plants and animals. The Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge near Conway, South Carolina, is a perfect place to spot many rare and endangered species including the Swallow-tailed kite (click read more for a picture!)

Historically, the Waccamaw was an important commerce route and cultural center for the Gullah people of South Carolina. To this day, the river remains vitally important to the survival of this culture and language, and is part of the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor. The river is used for hunting, fishing, recreation, boating and provides drinking water for several communities. Recognizing the impacts this river faces from development, American Rivers established the Waccamaw River Blue Trail using recreation as a tool to promote land and water conservation within this watershed. According to Christine Ellis, Waccamaw Riverkeeper, the river often gets overlooked as a place to visit by those who flock to nearby Myrtle Beach. Many visitors to the area don’t realize is that numerous areas of the Waccamaw feel very remote and wild within just a 15 minute drive from the beach crowds.

Another little-known fact is that for years coal ash has been dumped by Santee Cooper in the wetlands on the banks of the Waccamaw. These unlined pits are leaking high concentrations of arsenic and other dangerous pollutants to the river, threatening this beautiful and important resource.

The endangered Swallow-tailed kite is one of the 200 bird species that make their home in the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge. Coal ash pollution can cause fatal deformities in birds and other wildlife.

Santee Cooper’s idled Grainger Power Station is located near Conway, SC, along with the coal ash left over from its years of operation. At last official count the plant’s two coal ash impoundments contained almost 236 million gallons along the Waccamaw River’s banks. That’s enough waste to cover 550 football fields one foot deep in toxic coal ash. The waste in these lagoons is separated from the river by a low earthen berm.

In 2012, conservation groups (including SACE) represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center began pursuing legal actions to clean up the coal ash at the Grainger site. The first lawsuit filed sought to force the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to issue a new water pollution control permit, since the plant had been operating under an expired permit for the past seven years. On June 3, 2013, DHEC committed to issuing a new permit by August this year.

Fishing in the Waccamaw River is vitally important to the local economy and culture. Source: Bill Gobbel

The groups have also filed suit under the United States Clean Water Act for illegal water pollution of the Waccamaw River and nearby groundwater with arsenic and other harmful substances. Santee Cooper has proposed a plan to encase the coal ash ponds in a “cement vault”, which SELC and others see as “illegal and destined to fail”. The Conway City Council also spoke out against the closure plan, passing a resolution unanimously opposing Santee Cooper’s closure plan and demanding the coal ash be moved away from the river. So far, DHEC has not decided if Santee Cooper will be allowed to go forward with their preferred closure plan. The way Christine Ellis sees it:

“The Waccamaw River is a great natural resource for Conway, the Waccamaw Region, and the entire Southeast. Santee Cooper’s pollution is illegal and immoral, and it should be required to stop the ongoing pollution and clean it up for the benefit of our river and our community.”

Right now we all have an opportunity to put stronger protections from coal ash pollution in place. Until September 20, the EPA is taking public comments on new Coal Plant Water Pollution Standards – an important piece of the puzzle in controlling coal ash pollution. Send your comments now and ask the EPA to stop coal ash pollution on the Waccamaw, and all rivers nationwide.

Meanwhile, Congressional efforts are under way to undermine EPA’s authority to regulate coal ash and prevent the establishment of federal minimum safeguards. Send a message to your Representative today and ask that they oppose these efforts and let EPA do its job to regulate this toxic trash.

The Waccamaw Riverkeeper is a non-profit organization working to protect, preserve, monitor and revitalize the health of the lands and waters of the greater Winyah Bay watershed. To learn more about the river, or get involved to help out, visit their webpage at

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