The transformation from an electric plant to a plant-dominated wetland
Over the past eight years, Grainger Generating Station and the land it sat on has experienced a pretty dramatic metamorphosis. Commissioned in 1966, the plant and its two iconic red-tipped stacks stood sentry over Conway, its residents, and visitors heading to Myrtle Beach while it helped power rural areas and the Grand Strand.
It’s had many milestones in its nearly 50-year career, including being used to reenergize the grid and bring electricity back to our customers after Hurricane Hugo. It was dependable, but as an older coal station, there came a time when it needed to be decommissioned. That day came on Dec. 31, 2012. Then, on a cold February morning in 2016, we saw how much this station meant to the community as droves of people came out in the rain to watch as dynamite brought down its two stacks. I was there for the demo and it felt like the people in the crowd were saying goodbye to an old friend.
The transformation of the land Grainger stood on continued over the years as we leveled the area where the plant stood and planted grass on that land. Santee Cooper stopped pumping water into the cooling pond, known as Lake Busbee, to let nature take over (with a little help – we planted 65,000 tree seedlings in that area). From 2014 to 2020, Santee Cooper methodically removed 1.7 million tons of ash from Grainger’s two ash ponds, with 78% of the ash being beneficially used in the concrete market, and removed nearly 470,000 tons of soil, 83% of which was beneficially used as cover at neighboring landfills.
As this work was taking place, so did the 1,000-year flood in 2015, Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Hurricane Irma in 2017, Hurricane Florence in 2018, Hurricane Dorian in 2019, and the winter storm in early 2020. And we worked through all of those natural disasters to make sure the ash that was still being excavated didn’t wash out of the ash ponds and affect the environment.
The herculean task of turning a coal plant’s land into wetlands marked another milestone July 15 as we breached the dike of former Ash Pond 2 to let the Waccamaw River take over the site. (Former Ash Pond 1 was breached last fall.)
To quote Santee Cooper President and CEO Mark Bonsall, “This is one of the final steps in the promise Santee Cooper made to return Grainger’s reservoirs to their natural habitat. Beyond that commitment, Santee Cooper successfully redirected most of the ash to beneficial reuse in the cement and concrete business, supporting jobs and community economies. It’s an exciting time, bringing this project to conclusion.”
The wetlands, which will be taking shape over the next 10 years, will be on land the ash ponds once occupied. Santee Cooper is planting a mixture of species in these areas including bald cypress, swamp tupelo, a variety of oaks and red maple. Planting is expected to be complete in Pond 2 next year.
Even more inspiring how these efforts help the environment. Wetlands are diverse biological ecosystems that provide habitat for many species of microbes, plants, insects, amphibian, reptiles, birds, fish and mammals. About 1/3 of all threatened and endangered species call wetlands their home. In addition, the wetlands restoration will protect and improve water quality, act as a sponge to mitigate large flood events, and recharge underground aquifers.
From powering the economy to powering the environment, the transformation of the former Grainger Generating Station from an electric plant to a plant-dominated wetland is indeed exciting.