Some of my favorite childhood memories in the 1980s are fishing and crabbing with my brothers from the East Bay Park boat landing. I had no concern that the fish or crabs I caught and brought home to eat from Winyah Bay would cause illness or harm. I also remember when that changed, and warning signs appeared. Now, at the same landing, you’ll notice a health advisory that warns of the high levels of mercury in the fish. You should not be surprised that I stopped fishing and crabbing from these waters.
Our waters are continuously contaminated by mercury and other dangerous heavy metals that discharge from nearby coal-fired plants. Here in Georgetown, the pollutants from Santee Cooper’s Winyah Generating Station discharges into the North Santee River and Sampit River, via Turkey Creek, where our community fishes, crabs and shrimps.
Luckily, we have laws that protect us and our waters from danger. All coal plants in the state must obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit from South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). These NPDES permits put limits on what pollutants can be discharged into our waters and require the polluter to monitor and report on the discharges. For good reason, NPDES permits must be renewed after 5 years to incorporate any new regulations or pollution-control technologies. This permit process protects our community.
The last NPDES permit for the Winyah Generating Station expired in July 2011. Yes, ten years ago. All the while, excessive and dangerous amounts of toxic pollution have made its way into our local waters.
This is a glaring and unlawful oversight from DHEC, the very agency charged with ensuring the safety of our waterways and public health. Earlier this year, a successful lawsuit brought by the South Carolina Environmental Law Project and the Sierra Club forced DHEC to finally take action on the long-delayed permit for the Winyah plant, along with the permits for the Cross and Wateree coal plants, which also expired a decade ago.
Here’s the bad news. Last month, a new draft NPDES permit for Winyah was issued, and in short, the relaxed requirements and industry-friendly loopholes basically allow the excessive discharges of mercury and other toxic pollutants to continue as usual.
But here’s the good news. In the coming weeks, you have a chance to stand up for our waters and our community and demand accountability from DHEC. On Tuesday, November 16, DHEC will hold a virtual public meeting and hearing starting at 6:00 p.m. Comments on the draft permit will be accepted until December 1, 2021, and should be submitted to: Byron Amick DHEC, Bureau of Water 2600 Bull Street, Columbia, SC 29201 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: (803) 898-4236.
Your comments do not need to be technical or lawyerly. You can simply say you live here and you care about our community, and ask DHEC how they will ensure that our waters are fishable, swimmable and enjoyable. This is important for our tourism and fishing industries. This is important for Georgetown and for all of South Carolina.
Marilyn Hemingway is the CEO/President and Founder of the Gullah Geechee Chamber of Commerce and on the Board of Directors of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project.