March 31, 2009

Angry residents grill officials about coal ash

Angry residents grill officials about coal ash
By Tony Bartelme
The Post and Courier
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

ST. STEPHEN — Angry residents from the Tobacco Road area demanded Monday that Santee Cooper test their drinking water for toxic chemicals, saying they feared contaminants from tons of coal ash placed on the road in 2004 may be affecting their health.
Dust flies into the air as a truck makes its way down Tobacco Road last month. Several years ago, Santee Cooper took 425 tons of fly ash and put it on Tobacco Road, an unpaved lane that snakes through swamps near St. Stephen in Berkeley County. Residents, who are concerned about the effect of the dust on their health, sought answers at a meeting Monday night.

In a meeting at a church near the unpaved road, residents grilled top Santee Cooper and Berkeley County officials for nearly two hours, asking why the utility used fly ash on their road and when the county might pave it.

Bill McCall, Santee Cooper's vice president, said the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't classify fly ash as a hazardous waste and that he didn't think the project created any health or environmental hazards.

He told residents he would get back to them within a week about their request for drinking water and dust tests.

Earlier this month, Post and Courier Watchdog revealed that Santee Cooper and Berkeley County crews placed 425 tons of fly ash on the road that likely contained traces of arsenic, lead, barium and other toxic chemicals.

The utility used a dust suppressant that officials said would bind the ash to the soil and prevent it from getting into the water table.

About 40 residents gathered at the New Life Baptist Church. Many said they were skeptical about Santee Cooper's claims that the fly ash project didn't pose any dangers to their drinking water or lungs. Several said the road was a dusty mess that makes them sick, and that the dust felt different from other dirt roads in the county.

"I'm the one paying the medical bills," said Trish Cammer Crain, who said she was worried that toxic dust and contaminated drinking water might be the cause of some of her health problems.
Previous story

Coal ash on Tobacco Road, published 03/16/09

Another resident, Amanda Wilder, said her family also suffered unexplained maladies. "Nobody can tell what's wrong on this road," she said.

When McCall explained that Santee Cooper did the project to determine whether it was economically feasible to use ash on unpaved roads, one resident shouted, "So we were guinea pigs?"

McCall said the project was done with the approval of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and that he believed the road's dust problem was from limestone graded onto the road over the years, not from any fly ash.

That prompted William Lynch, another resident, to ask where the ash went. "And why did you quit using it if it was so good?"
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Steve C. Davis, a Berkeley County councilman, urged residents to pressure the county and Santee Cooper to test their drinking water, and he challenged McCall's reassuring comments about the hazards of fly ash and DHEC's role. "DHEC is nothing but a political tool," he said.

Concerns about coal ash have grown in recent months here and across the country.

A Watchdog report last fall revealed that utility ash ponds and landfills were polluting groundwater with arsenic and other toxic chemicals. In December, a pond in Tennessee failed, spilling millions of gallons of ash waste laden with arsenic, eventually triggering a nationwide review of ash waste laws. Last week, 400 residents in Virginia filed a $1 billion lawsuit, alleging that a utility and a developer used fly ash to build a golf course, and this ash tainted drinking wells.

The EPA in the late 1990s nearly classified coal ash as a hazardous waste but backed away under pressure from coal interests and utilities. Among other things, officials from these industries argued that classifying ash as hazardous could hurt efforts to recycle coal ash.

Every year, American coal-fired plants generate 130 million tons of coal ash. More than half goes into landfills and retention ponds, though utilities in recent years have made great strides finding ways to reuse it. Fly ash, for instance, is often used as a substitute for cement in concrete.

During the meeting, Berkeley County Supervisor Dan Davis said that the county would begin engineering work later this spring to pave the road. Construction could begin about six months after that, he said.

But residents said that even if the road is paved, they wonder how the ash will affect them in years to come. "We've been breathing this dust and drinking the water for four years now," Wilder said. "It's in our bodies."

Reach Tony Bartelme at 937-5554 or

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