Toxic Coal Ash in South Carolina: Addressing Coal Plants’ Hazardous Legacy

For decades, utilities disposed of coal ash — the hazardous substance left after burning coal for energy — by dumping it in unlined ponds and landfills. South Carolina has 34 coal ash dumpsites.

Coal ash contains hazardous pollutants including arsenic, boron, cobalt, chromium, lead, lithium, mercury, molybdenum, radium, selenium, and other heavy metals, which have been linked to cancer, heart and thyroid disease, reproductive failure, and neurological harm. In 2023, the EPA acknowledged that coal ash is even more dangerous than previously thought, with levels of arsenic and radiation that pose cancer risks.

Industry’s own data indicate that across the country 91% of coal plants are currently polluting groundwater above federal health standards with toxic pollutants.

Coal ash remains one of our nation’s largest toxic industrial waste streams. U.S. coal plants continue to produce approximately 70 million tons every year.

Despite EPA’s 2015 Coal Ash Rule, which created the first-ever safeguards for coal ash disposal, many coal ash dumps remain unregulated due to sweeping exemptions for legacy coal ash ponds and inactive landfills.

The exempted coal ash dumps are sited disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color. After years of litigation and grassroots activism, the EPA will extend clean up requirements to hundreds of old coal ash dumps across the country when it issues new regulations in the spring of 2024.

In 2023, the EPA acknowledged widespread noncompliance with existing coal ash regulations and ramped up enforcement after designating coal ash a national enforcement priority.

Former coal ash ponds at Grainger Generating Station, Conway, S.C. Coal ash contaminated the groundwater in the area with heavy metals and toxins.
Former coal ash ponds at Grainger Generating Station, Conway, S.C. Coal ash contaminated the groundwater in the area with heavy metals and toxins. (Anthony Brown / Permission from Southern Environmental Law Center)

Action Needed

The magnitude of harm from recklessly dumped toxic coal ash requires decisive action from federal and state regulators.

  • Utilities must be required to comply with the law and immediately clean up their pollution.
  • EPA and states must act quickly to ensure that utilities leave communities with sites that benefit rather than harm their health, environment, and economic status.
  • EPA must take action to prohibit the use of coal ash as construction fill and make polluters clean up areas where ash was used as fill.
Coal ash dump sites across the United States. Use this map to understand where coal ash might be stored near you and how a given site may be impacted by EPA's expansion of the federal Coal Ash Rule. (Caroline Weinberg / Earthjustice)

19 Regulated Coal Ash Disposal Sites in South Carolina

South Carolina utilities operate 19 federally regulated coal ash ponds and landfills containing nearly 24 million cubic yards of toxic waste at seven coal plants.

At all of the South Carolina plants, industry’s monitoring data indicate that groundwater is contaminated above federal safe standards.

Despite the serious water contamination, no South Carolina plant, to date, has selected a final cleanup plan that will actually remove the hazardous contaminants from the groundwater, as required by federal law.

The coal ash contamination disproportionately impacts disadvantaged and vulnerable communities, as all but one of the coal ash-contaminated sites are located in communities of color or low-income communities.

Cope Cross Dominion 1 landfill Historical data indicate exceedances of cobalt and radium[ii]
Cross* Cross Santee Cooper 2 unlined ponds, 2 landfills Beryllium (x4), Boron (x12), Cobalt (x15), Lithium (x2), Radium 226+228 (x3), Sulfate (x4)
HB Robinson Hartsville Duke Energy 1 unlined pond Arsenic (x10), Lithium (x2), Molybdenum (x1), Radium 226+228 (x3), Thallium (x1)
WS Lee Williamston Duke Energy 2 unlined ponds Arsenic (x2), Beryllium (x1), Boron (x1), Cobalt (x15), Lithium (x2), Molybdenum (x4), Radium 226+228 (x1)
Wateree Eastover Dominion 1 unlined pond, 1 lined pond, 1 landfill Arsenic (x113), Boron (x1), Cobalt (x2), Lithium (x2)
Williams Goose Creek Dominion 1 lined pond, 1 landfill Arsenic (x2), Boron (x10), Cobalt (x1), Radium 226+228 (x2)
Winyah* Georgetown Santee Cooper 5 unlined ponds, 1 landfill Arsenic (x62), Boron (x7), Lithium (x10), Mercury (x11), Molybdenum (x6), Radium 226+228 (x1), Sulfate (x2)

Plants Cross and Winyah operate inactive coal ash ponds at the facility but have not reported the ponds on their CCR Rule Compliance Data and Information website nor has the owner complied with the CCR rule’s requirements that apply to these ponds, including groundwater monitoring, closure, and corrective action. This is also the case at SC Electric & Gas Co’s Urquart Plant in Beech Island, SC.

All data on groundwater contamination from coal ash derived from the utilities’ publicly accessible CCR Compliance Data and Information websites, and exceedances were calculated by Environmental Integrity Project.

For more information on regulated coal ash sites in South Carolina, see Mapping the Coal Ash Contamination.

15 Unregulated Coal Ash Legacy Ponds and Inactive Landfills in South Carolina (ash dumps exempted from the 2015 Coal Ash Rule)

March 2024 Update: The table below underestimates the legacy units that may be regulated by EPA’s upcoming CCR Legacy Pond Rule. Additional legacy units at specific plants may be found in the national map, above.

In addition, South Carolina hosts at least 15 unregulated inactive coal ash landfills and legacy ponds that escape federal regulation. The exact number remains unknown because utilities are not required to report these sites.

At several of the sites in South Carolina, EPA and/or the utility has already determined that coal ash has contaminated groundwater, but there are no federal monitoring or cleanup requirements applicable to the unregulated dump sites.

As we anticipate EPA’s proposed rule on legacy ponds and unregulated landfills in May 2023, a concern remains that the agency will not address coal ash that was dumped off site or used as fill.

Canadys Steam Canadys SC Electric & Gas Co 3 1 Yes – EPA damage case
Cross Cross Santee Cooper 0 3 Yes – Industry data and EPA damage case
Grainger Conway SC Public Service Auth 2 0 Yes – EPA damage case
Jefferies Moncks Corner SC Public Service Auth 2 0 Unknown – no data
McMeekin Columbia SC Electric & Gas Co 0 1 Yes – EPA damage case
Savannah River D-Area Savannah River DOE 0 1 Yes – EPA damage case
Urquhart Beech Island SC Electric & Gas Co 0 1 Yes – EPA damage case
Williams Goose Creek Dominion 0 1 Yes – Industry data

“Industry data”: Industry monitoring data posted on the plant’s CCR Compliance Data and Information website.

“EPA damage case” denotes a site where US EPA has found documented groundwater contamination from coal ash.

These data were developed by using EPA datasets relied upon in their 2007 and 2014 CCR risk assessments (Human and Ecological Risk Assessment of Coal Combustion Residuals) and comparing those datasets to the universe of regulated units.

Earthjustice fights in the courts for a long-term solution to the toxic menace of coal ash. And we act on behalf of dozens of clients and over 100 coalition partners to defeat legislative attempts to subvert federally enforceable safeguards of coal ash.

Earthjustice’s Clean Energy Program uses the power of the law and the strength of partnership to accelerate the transition to 100% clean energy.