Binoculars aimed at the trees, Arthur Weeks scoured Lake Busbee Tuesday afternoon looking for birds.

The Coastal Carolina University biology major is taking an ornithology class, and when he searched for the best places for birding in the area, he wound up at the swamp that was once part of Santee Cooper’s Grainger Steam Plant. Weeks is also an avid kayaker, and so Conway leaders’ recent discussions about acquiring Busbee and the former ash ponds across U.S. 501 for recreational projects, including a kayak launch, sounded intriguing.

“That would be something I would be interested in,” said Weeks, who is originally from Charlotte, North Carolina. “I like breathing in fresh air, being on the water, feeling wind, hearing nature around me, seeing birds. It makes me feel very peaceful.”

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Lake Busbee in Conway is owned by Santee Cooper. Here on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, a bee buzzes by. Photo by Janet Morgan /

City officials outlined their vision for the Busbee property this month during Conway City Council’s budget retreat in Aiken. City Administrator Adam Emrick described a potential partnership with Santee Cooper, the state-run utility that owns the 380-acre site. He said the city is seeking three parcels from Santee Cooper, including Busbee.

Emrick said one ash pond site could be redeveloped with a beach for kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and an inland marina with 100 boat slips.

"We think it needs to be an amenity for the city," he said. "We're a river city with an amazing ecological asset that we haven't showcased."

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Lake Busbee in Conway is owned by Santee Cooper. Here on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, a duck swims. Photo by Janet Morgan /

Enter the property of the former steam plant, which towered above U.S. 501 for 50 years. The plant closed in 2012 and demolition crews razed the plant’s 300-foot smokestacks in 2016.

The site contains two unlined lagoons that were built to hold the residual coal ash from the plant. Although Santee Cooper originally planned to leave the ash on the site, the Southern Environmental Law Center sued the utility over pollution concerns and the two sides reached a settlement in 2013 that required Santee Cooper to remove nearly 2 million tons of coal ash.

That ash contained arsenic and lead, and it was a major concern when Hurricane Florence flooded Conway in 2018. Though one pond had been cleared, 200,000 tons of material still sat in the second lagoon when Florence arrived. To contain the ash, the utility reinforced the dikes with sandbags. Crews brought in rocks to fill any breaches.

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Lake Busbee in Conway is owned by Santee Cooper. Here on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, a bird flies. Photo by Janet Morgan /

After the storm, Santee Cooper expedited the cleanup. And in 2021, Santee Cooper finished returning the coal ash pond to its natural state. The ash pond land covers about 80 acres.

Along with removing all the ash, Santee Cooper also dug an additional foot of soil from the pits and began planting cypress and oak trees there. They did the same type of planting with the former Lake Busbee site across the street. Originally a cooling pond for the Grainger plant, the lake spanned more than 300 acres. Now it’s wetlands.

The site is popular with dog walkers, joggers and those just looking for an afternoon stroll.

"I come out here sometimes," said Brooklyn Pritchett of North Myrtle Beach, who walked there on Tuesday. "Just [enjoy] being outside."

At one point, local leaders considered recruiting industry to the 12 upland acres across from Busbee that once held the plant's smokestacks. That site was graded and a committee was formed to plan for the property’s redevelopment. But the committee stopped meeting years ago.

Sandy Davis, the head of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp. (EDC), said there are no industrial plans for the site.

That leaves the city’s goal, which is to expand the area’s recreational offerings. Emrick said a hospitality bond could pay off the project’s cost, though a lot of the work could be funded now.

“Every 5K in the county will be done here,” Emrick said, adding the scenic route wouldn’t require road closures.

Santee Cooper spokeswoman Nicole Aiello said the utility is continuing discussions with the city about the site.

"Conway has a strong vision for how they could use the former Grainger site to create a unique asset for people who live in the area and people who visit it," she said in a prepared statement. "Santee Cooper has an opportunity to use the Grainger/Busbee property to help Conway achieve that vision, which fits nicely with our mission and also our economic development role. There are a number of details to work out to determine the feasibility of supporting this project, including seeking and obtaining appropriate approvals. We are working closely with Conway and others to make sure any decision would support our customers, the environment and the larger community."

As far as a timeline, Emrick said it could be over a year before the city secures the land from Santee Cooper.

But city council members see many options for the property, including extending Conway's Riverwalk to U.S. 501.

City council members also noted that the local marinas are out of space.

That fact isn’t lost on Matt Varnadore, who owns Waccamaw Outfitters and often guides kayak tours and pontoon tours on the Waccamaw River.

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Lake Busbee in Conway is owned by Santee Cooper. Here on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, a sign lists the rules. Photo by Janet Morgan /

Last year, he participated in a focus group organized to share ideas for the city’s five-year plan. Many folks there mentioned adding a marina. He said both the city-owned marina and a privately-owned one are at capacity “with a long waiting list.”

“That piece of property was actually one of the talking points in that meeting,” he said.

Varnadore sees numerous advantages to the city’s proposal.

“It really boosts our eco-tourism here,” he said. “It’s going to bring a lot more business into Conway from a different route — from the water, not necessarily having to rely on the 501 corridor and folks venturing out down into Conway. You’ve got 100 extra boats in Conway? They’re going to eat in Conway. They’re going to shop. They’re going to spend their dollars here.”

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Lake Busbee in Conway is owned by Santee Cooper. Here on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, a bee lights on a flower. Photo by Janet Morgan /

Contact Charles D. Perry at 843-488-7236


I'm the editor of and the Carolina Forest Chronicle, a weekly newspaper in Horry County, South Carolina. I cover county government, the justice system and agriculture. Know of a story that needs to be covered? Call me at 843-488-7236.

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