The Saluda River carves a path through South Carolina’s Blue Ridge, where its cool, clear waters teem with trout. Travel a little farther downstream, however, and the Saluda is under siege, threatened by two massive pits that are teeming with tons of toxic coal ash.

Coal ash is produced when coal is burned. Though it is known to be laden with dangerous concentrations of heavy metals like arsenic, chromium, lead and selenium, it has not yet been categorized as hazardous waste by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency. The result is a hazy patchwork of state policies that do little to regulate the toxic material’s ultimate disposal.

At the Lee Steam Station—located between Greenville and Anderson, S.C.—Duke Energy has been burning coal since 1951. The toxic ash remains, piled high in unlined ponds and contained by deteriorating earthen dams, a precarious reminder of decades of reliance on coal-fired energy.
“These toxic chemicals are known to be in the ground water and are likely leaking into the Saluda River on a daily basis,” says Melanie Ruhlman, a South Carolina resident and watershed specialist who lives near the banks of the North Saluda. She fears for the health of her water and other rivers near coal plants—and for good reason.

Last February, another Duke-owned ash pond on North Carolina’s Dan River made the worst kind of national and global headlines when its outdated stormwater pipe failed, sending nearly 40,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million tons of contaminated water directly into the Dan River. That’s enough coal ash and slurry to fill 73 Olympic-sized swimming pools, all of which entered a tributary tasked with providing clean drinking water to five communities in North Carolina and Virginia.

Duke—now the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation—has initiated clean-up efforts on the Dan, but the adverse effects of the heavy metals and other chemicals imparted by the spill will likely be felt for years to come.

Melanie Ruhlman doesn’t want the Saluda to be the next coal ash disaster headline. As a member of both the Save our Saluda conservation organization and the Foothills Paddling Club, she has teamed up with Frank Holleman, the Senior Attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). Recently, Holleman’s work helped bring about major policy shifts in the way that two other South Carolina utilities—South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G) and Santee Cooper—handle coal ash disposal. A lawsuit he brought forth with help from the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation even compelled SCE&G to begin clean up of a pond that stored 2.7 million tons of coal ash along the banks of the Wateree River.

Now, Holleman has shifted his efforts to the ash ponds along the Saluda, as well as the fourteen Duke-owned facilities in North Carolina. One problem he’s run into as of late has to do with a bill being pushed through the South Carolina legislature.

H3925, which passed in the South Carolina House of Representatives in February, would forbid citizens groups like Save our Saluda and the Foothills Paddling Club from bringing suit against big polluters like Duke Energy under the state’s Pollution Control Act. The bill would instead lay the burden of regulating these companies solely at the feet of notoriously inactive state agencies such as the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). The bill was pushed through the House with heavy support from the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance—a lobbying group of which Duke is a powerful member.
“This bill would essentially allow Duke Energy to continue its egregious environmental violations while denying the citizens directly affected by those violations any say in the matter,” Holleman said. “It is amnesty for polluters.”

On March 24, during a Public Service Commission meeting in Columbia, Duke officials tried to assure South Carolina regulators and an increasingly concerned public that the ponds on the Saluda are “safe”, posing no danger of failure because they lack the specific type of storm water pipe that wreaked havoc on the Dan River. They indicated that the active ponds in South Carolina are slated for closure but laid out no immediate plans for clean up or remediation.

According to Holleman, Duke’s most recent statements are part of an all-too-familiar PR narrative designed to quell public uprising while offering no real plan of action. He warned the state regulators at the meeting about taking the utility’s word, citing Duke’s record of deception in North Carolina.

“(Duke) should at least do with the coal ash what you and I are required to do with our kitchen waste,” he said, in an interview with the Associated Press. “No municipality could store routine waste in an unlined pit filled with water next to a major waterway.”

–Travis Hall