Fishing on Lake Busbee

Steve Firsing tries fishing in Lake Busbee. Sunday was Firsing’s first trip to the lake, which often attracts joggers, dog walkers and nature photographers. Santee Cooper owns the site.

The pollution of Lake Busbee should surprise no one.

Nor should there be any shock over Santee Cooper’s desire to hand off the tainted property without fixing the problem.

The utility’s troubling history at the former Grainger steam plant site on U.S. 501 makes the recent revelations about the man-made lake’s pollution seem inevitable. And as local leaders consider acquiring the 330-acre lake from Santee Cooper, they must insist that the state-run entity clean up the mess it has made there.

For decades, Santee Cooper stored coal ash from its Conway generating station in unlined lagoons beside the Waccamaw River. The lagoons discharged arsenic into the groundwater and the river, sometimes at levels 300 times the legal limit, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center, which sued Santee Cooper over the Grainger pollution and reached a settlement in 2013.

As part of that settlement, Santee Cooper agreed to remove 1.3 million tons of coal ash from the banks of the river.

Back then, Conway City Council approved a resolution stating its support for removing the ash. City leaders now face a decision about what to do with Lake Busbee, which sits across the highway from the Grainger site.

Santee Cooper closed the Grainger plant in 2012 and tore down the smokestacks last year. The lake was built as a cooling pond for the plant, so the plant’s demolition makes the lake unnecessary.

Utility officials have told the city they would like Conway to take responsibility for maintaining the lake and the $100,000 annual cost that comes with it.

If water is not pumped into the lake, it will revert back to what it naturally is: a wetlands.

Conway officials have asked local residents to share their ideas for Lake Busbee at a Sept. 18 meeting. The discussion will be held at 4 p.m., just before the regular council meeting.

Although we appreciate city officials’ willingness to ask for the public’s input about the lake, we hope they will take a firm position in dealing with Santee Cooper.

Local leaders cannot simply accept the lake in its current condition.

When Santee Cooper sought regulatory approval to close the pond, tests showed pollutants in the lake's sediment.

Rather than conduct further studies, Santee Cooper simply agreed to restrict public access to the site. The decision meant no swimming, boating or fishing at Busbee. It also assured there would be no cleanup at the property.

In other words, Santee Cooper will abandon a polluted lake.

Adrianna Bradley, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), said the restrictions at Busbee will remain whether it is a lake or a wetlands.

Conway officials know this, and the limited use of the lake and the high cost of maintaining it will likely influence their decision.

We hope they will keep the property open for recreation. It’s popular with joggers, dog walkers and nature photographers. However, if Santee Cooper won’t clean up the pollution, city leaders should seek to force the utility’s hand, through the courts if necessary.

Regardless of whether the lake remains in its current state, this is certain: the city doesn’t need to invest in a toxic asset.

This editorial appeared in the Carolina Forest Chronicle, a sister paper to the Horry Independent.

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