State-owned power company fined for air pollution at three South Carolina plants

South Carolina’s state-owned utility has been fined nearly $23,000 for failing to control air pollution at power plants in three parts of the state.

Santee Cooper ran into trouble with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control after the agency said power plants in Anderson, Georgetown and Berkeley counties had released air toxins in violation of state permits.

Coal-fired power plants in Georgetown and Berkeley counties released elevated levels of particulate matter, or soot, while a natural gas-fired plant in Anderson County released too much nitrogen oxide, a contaminant that contributes to smog.

Both pollutants can irritate people’s lungs and make breathing more difficult. The problems were discovered several years ago during testing at the power plants, Santee Cooper says.

The problems have been resolved and test results show the utility is now complying with the law, according to DHEC and Santee Cooper. The company has paid the $22,950 fine, DHEC records show.

The pollution at Santee Cooper’s Rainey natural gas plant in Anderson County and its Cross coal facility in Berkeley County slightly exceeded the limits, but the pollution at the Winyah plant in Georgetown County was more significant, enforcement records show.

DHEC’s enforcement order indicates particulate matter pollution was more than 50 percent higher than the standard at the Winyah plant when tests were conducted in 2018. The company has said it plans to close the aging power plant.

Santee Cooper’s trouble with DHEC isn’t the first time the power company has been cited for violating air pollution rules at power plants during the past 10 years.

Among those were three citations in Berkeley County in 2011 and 2012, agency enforcement records show.

Also, DHEC cited the Georgetown and Cross plants in 2018 for failing to operate mercury monitoring equipment, records show. Mercury is a powerful toxin that has polluted fish through much of eastern South Carolina. DHEC’s enforcement actions cost Santee Cooper at least $71,000 in fines, records show.

Those problems followed other issues the company had controlling air pollution and complying with environmental regulations, The State reported in 2008.

Frank Holleman, an Upstate environmental lawyer who has pushed Santee Cooper to clean up pollution at coal plants, said the violations are disturbing.

“It’s always a concern because we count on the utilities effectively and optimally operating the pollution control devices we’ve all paid for them to put on,’’ he said. “These air pollution control devices are there for a reason. They protect the environment and public health against premature death, respiratory disease and the overall health of our environment.’’

DHEC and Santee Cooper downplayed concerns about the most recent air pollution violations. They said Santee Cooper, which generates power for more than 2 million people statewide, did not threaten public health.

“The air near these plants is safe to breathe,’’ DHEC spokeswoman Laura Renwick said. “Santee Cooper was required to retest these units within 60 days, and all retests showed compliance with current air permit limits.’’

Utility spokeswoman Nicole Aiello said the company takes the violations and “air quality compliance very seriously,’’ and it has taken steps to resolve the problems.

“Although each event was distinct, they all involved technical testing protocols, and Santee Cooper does not believe that public health or the environment was impacted by any of the events,’’ Aiello’s statement said. “Santee Cooper has taken steps to make adjustments and improvements to system procedures, maintenance and inspections to avoid any recurring issues.’’

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