Wateree power plant targeted for closure. How many jobs are on the chopping block?

Sammy Fretwell
·5 min read

Dominion Energy plans to close a 51-year-old Columbia-area power plant that has employed generations of workers but also has polluted groundwater and the Wateree River while burning coal to make electricity.

Company plans show that two other coal-burning power plants in Berkeley and Orangeburg counties also would close in the next decade, a change that would effectively end South Carolina’s production of power through coal.

Air pollution from coal plants is a leading cause of man-made climate change. If the Dominion plan becomes final, all of Dominion’s once robust fleet of coal-fired power plants would be closed by 2030. Santee Cooper and Duke Energy already have closed or announced plans to close coal plants in South Carolina.

The impact on jobs remained unclear this week because Dominion declined to say how many employees might be affected by the proposed closures.

But it could affect several hundred positions, if other coal plant closures are comparable. In announcing two years ago it would close a power station in Georgetown County, Santee Cooper said the change could affect 200 jobs.

A Dominion spokesman said the proposal is not final and is subject to change. The Orangeburg coal plant would close, but a natural gas plant also on the site would remain.. Dominion’s plans follow a ruling in late December by the state Public Service Commission. The PSC ordered the power company to study in more detail the possibility of closing coal plants and relying more on other forms of energy.

Now, Dominion said it is moving to close the three plants under a comprehensive energy resource plan it must provide to the PSC.

Closing the three coal stations is “the most reasonable and prudent resource plan to pursue at this time,’’ Dominion said in a recent filing with the PSC.

The Virginia-headquartered company says it is looking to replace the South Carolina power plants with solar and natural gas-generated energy, as well as relying on battery storage.

What impact the retirement of coal plants would have on rates remained unclear this past week, but the company said shifting from coal to more natural gas could mean the need for more gas pipelines — an issue sure to bring criticism from environmentalists.

The company had been considering closing the coal fired power plants decades into the future, but last week’s filing with the PSC sped up the timetable following the December utility board ruling.

Plants that generate electricity from coal have been used for decades, but have begun to close in recent years for a variety of reasons, among them their environmental impacts. Coal-fired power plants release mercury into the air that later rains back into rivers and contaminates fish. Such plants also contribute gases, such as carbon dioxide, that cause global warming.

Water pollution also is an issue. The Wateree plant in lower Richland County was the subject of a lawsuit more than a decade ago over plans to build a landfill to serve the facility.

Evidence presented in the trial showed that groundwater pollution from the coal plant had been extensive. At the same time, toxin-laden water was trickling from a coal ash waste pond into the Wateree River, upriver from Congaree National Park.

The Wateree plant is a visible part of the landscape of eastern Richland County, with emissions stacks rising high above the rural farmland.

According to the new Dominion Energy plan, the Wateree station would close in 2028, as would the company’s Williams’ plant in Berkeley County.

“The plan … indicates that the most reasonable and prudent path for the company is a plan to retire Wateree and Williams stations in 2028,’’ the company said in an email Tuesday. “Natural gas, solar and battery storage resources would be added to the system.’’

Dominion would close its Cope coal plant in Orangeburg County by 2030 and focus exclusively on using natural gas at the site. The plant now uses both coal and natural gas.

The company’s statement said detailed studies are underway before another proposal goes to the Public Service Commission.

Dominion, which acquired SCE&G two years ago, said in 2019 that it had no plans to retire its remaining three coal plants, including Wateree.

Officials with the Sierra Club and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League said they are glad Dominion is moving away from coal. The three power plants are in largely minority communities that have suffered from power plant pollution, the Sierra Club said.

“The closure of these plants will be a huge health benefit for families and children who have been forced to live, work and play in the shadow of coal-burning plants that pollute their air and the rivers where they boat and fish,’’ the club’s Will Harlan said in a news release. “These communities have fought long and hard for protections that others take for granted, and now there’s hope for real change.’’

Still, he and the Conservation League’s Eddy Moore said relying too heavily on natural gas could be a problem. Some of the gas would come from fracking, a controversial practice of extracting natural gas from underground, the Sierra Club said.

Both organizations favor greater use of renewable energy, namely wind and solar power. Moore said laying more pipelines for natural gas isn’t the answer.

“We should be super cautious about putting our eggs in the gas basket,’’ Moore said.