OPINION: Coal plants, coal ash aren't part of energy future I envision for S.C.


When it comes to coal ash, South Carolina already has more than we'd like. Duke Energy, Dominion and Santee Cooper generate electricity from coal and still haven't figured out how to store the state's current stockpile of coal ash safely.

That's why it was alarming to hear that the Tennessee Valley Authority is considering shipping some 3.5 million cubic yards of their coal ash to a private landfill in Bishopville. The landfill is owned by a private company based in Arizona. Citizens can rest assured that my colleagues and I at the Statehouse are aligned on a clear response: Not here, and not without a fight.

Simply put, South Carolina needs less toxic coal ash - not more. Coal generation itself and the byproduct of coal ash it produces pollutes our air and water. Spills and leaks in other states have validated the dangers of coal ash. Storing coal ash in rural areas is yet another unfair burden and health threat to these communities.

Because the news of TVA's coal ash transport was kept under wraps until weeks ago, we had to act rapidly to have any chance of thwarting the plan. As word spread, our legislative delegation discussed options and agreed the swiftest way to impact TVA's negotiations and protect South Carolinians was to impose a hefty surcharge. I filed and presented a budget proviso, adopted in the House, that imposes a $30 per ton surcharge on any coal ash transported into South Carolina and disposed of in Lee County or any county with a population of under 19,500 people. Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-S.C., and Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-S.C., introduced a similar, standalone bill in the Senate that quickly gained widespread, bipartisan support. While these measures don't outlaw out-of-state coal ash from being stored in South Carolina, the proposed surcharge is intended to achieve the same result, discouraging TVA and other utilities from considering dumping their coal ash in South Carolina.

Coal is a dirty, increasingly expensive way to make electricity. The coal ash that plants leave behind contains mercury, cadmium and arsenic, all of which are unhealthy if spilled or leaked into our waterways, ground water or the air. Neighboring states have learned the hard way, through devastating coal ash spills, just how damaging it can be. It's a problem that needs addressing now, and we should start with the coal ash produced by South Carolina's own coal plants. With the technology available to generate electricity with clean sources like solar and wind, it's time to ramp up plans to close all five of our state's coal plants. With the ownership and operation of Santee Cooper currently under evaluation, we have an achievable opportunity to ensure the state's utility swiftly phases out coal. The power is, literally, in our hands to set the stage for a clean, safe and affordable energy future for South Carolina as we chart the course for Santee Cooper.

There is no dollar amount that makes it safe for additional tons of coal ash to be stored in South Carolina. We've already had some close calls right here in South Carolina. Perhaps the most frightening event came in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in 2018, when floodwaters threatened to overtop a coal-ash impoundment at Santee Cooper's Grainger coal plant along the Waccamaw River. The risks are not theoretical; coal ash is a real and present danger.

Oftentimes when folks say "not in my backyard," the thing that they don't want ends up in the backyards of those who cannot afford to fight. Our rural communities are already disproportionately burdened with facilities and infrastructure that urban and wealthier communities have rejected, increasing their risk of the adverse health and environmental impacts associated with these facilities. We cannot stand by and allow convoys of trucks to dump tons of coal ash into Bishopville or any other South Carolina town.

It really comes down to this: a Tennessee power company makes money by selling energy and producing coal ash. In order to get this ash out of Tennessee, they would truck the ash hundreds of miles to dump it in a privately owned landfill in Lee County. The landfill company will make money, but everyone knows the associated wealth won't be retained in or benefit Lee County.

When the landfill is gone, the people of South Carolina and particularly Lee County will be the ones stuck with the long-term risks of contamination and costs of monitoring. This is not conjecture; this scenario has already happened in our backyard once. Anyone familiar with the history of the Pinewood site in Sumter County knows this all too well. Let's not make the same mistake again.

We are confident that the provisions currently on the table can address this immediate situation, but more work remains at the Statehouse to protect our citizens. The provisos and legislation we are currently pursuing, admittedly, address the symptoms of the problem, not the cause.

The only sustainable way to address the cause is to end coal's reign in South Carolina altogether. Coal plants and their byproducts are polluting our air, threatening the safety of our drinking water and increasing our power bills because of the expensive measures that must be taken to control and contain coal contaminants.

It's not worth the cost. It's not worth the risk. And it's not part of the clean energy future I envision for South Carolina.

South Carolina Rep. Will Wheeler represents District 50, which includes parts of Kershaw, Lee and Sumter counties.