COLUMBIA, S.C.— The Sierra Club and South Carolina’s environmental regulators have entered into an agreement to update permits at three coal burning power plants that have been discharging mercury, arsenic and other dangerous pollutants into local waterways using permits that expired as long ago as 2010.
The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) has agreed to address its failure to protect the water quality and health of families living near the Cross, Winyah and Wateree coal plants, all of which are located in predominantly Black and low-income communities.
The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits at these sites, which monitor and limit industrial discharge into waterways, expired in 2010, 2011 and 2012, respectively. In July, Sierra Club, with support from partners at the South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP), filed suit to force DHEC to take action.
Under the federal Clean Water Act and the South Carolina Pollution Control Act, NPDES permits have a maximum term of five years to ensure regular re-evaluations of pollution control technologies, and to determine whether new technologies have become available that would justify stricter permit limits.
In its agreement with the Sierra Club, DHEC will issue draft permits for Wateree, Winyah and Cross power plants on the following schedule:
The permit deadlines can be extended by three months, but only if the Biden Administration rescinds or rolls back the 2020 effluent limitations guidelines rule (which sets federal limits on levels of toxic metals in wastewater that can be discharged from coal, gas, oil and nuclear plants), or if a court stays the 2020 rule or overturns it. There will be a 60-day public comment period when each draft permit is issued.
Will Harlan, senior representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in South Carolina, said the agreement is a critical move in the right direction. “But let’s be clear: there’s no excuse for letting these permits expire and leaving families and their kids exposed to toxins like arsenic and mercury for a decade. We have to stop this ongoing pollution as soon as possible—but the real solution is to stop burning dirty, dangerous fossil fuels in the first place, and replace them with the clean, safe, and affordable renewable energy South Carolinians demand and deserve.”
Leslie Lenhardt, staff attorney with SCELP, added, “This is great news for our waters, wildlife and communities. We have achieved our goal of forcing DHEC to render decisions on these coal plant applications after years of the agency's extensive inaction. This settlement ensures the applications will be evaluated without further delay and under the correct regulatory standards, thereby protecting public health from unlawful and toxic contamination.”
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Leslie Lenhardt, Esquire
South Carolina Environmental Law Project
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South Carolina Environmental Law Project is a nonprofit public interest law firm. Its mission is to protect the natural environment of South Carolina by providing legal services and advice to environmental organizations and concerned citizens and by improving the state’s system of environmental regulation.
The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with more than 3.5 million members and supporters. In addition to protecting every person's right to get outdoors and access the healing power of nature, the Sierra Club works to promote clean energy, safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and legal action. For more information, visit www.sierraclub.org.