Coal ash is a general term for the by-product of burning coal. Traditionally, it has been used as a raw material in cement, asphalt for roads, and in industrial rubbers and plastics. Surplus ash is mixed with water and put into what are known as “coal-ash ponds.” If not properly built or maintained, these ponds pose a long-term environmental risk for leaching or spilling into clean-water sources as well as a risk for disasters like the Dan River coal-ash spill in North Carolina. 

As chairman of Santee Cooper, South Carolina’s largest electricity generator, it was my job to figure out what to do with the coal-ash ponds from our retiring coal-power plants. This is where being part of Liberty Fellowship was key. Fellows in Liberty Fellowship are very close. We see each other regularly—at happy hours, dinners, or alumni events—and build genuine relationships with each other, even if we’re on opposite sides of an issue. 

Generally, in the world of utilities and environmentalists, the operating atmosphere is one of gamesmanship, posturing, and hostility. It’s hard to take anyone at their word. But with the space created by Liberty Fellowship, I know that if I called other Fellows for advice, they would give it to me straight. I spoke to environmentalists, hydrologists, and other leaders in the network, and they told me which solutions would lead to progress—and which ones would lead to lawsuits. With their help, we proposed a solution to solve two problems at once— the need to get coal ash out of pits near surface water and the need for a new source of dry ash within the industry. 

We partnered with a South Carolina company and helped them construct a $40 million facility at one of our operating coal plants to prepare pond ash for reuse by industry. Today, coal ash from all of Santee Cooper’s unlined coal-ash ponds is being mined, processed, and sold to the cement, paint, plastics, and rubber industries. Our operation is mining over 400,000 tons of coal ash a year. The good problem we face is that our program is so successful, we will soon run out of coal ash. The input of my Fellows was invaluable in this whole process. It wasn’t just the substance of our conversations but the mutual trust that helped me reach a decision with the confidence to know I was placing the right bet for our company, community, and the environment.

Fellow Leighton Lord is chairman of Nexsen Pruet and founder and managing director of Nexsen’s communications and crisis management affiliate, NP Strategy. Lord also serves as the chairman of Santee Cooper, South Carolina’s state-owned electric and water utility, the largest generator of power in South Carolina. 

This article appeared in the Summer 2016 issues of Ideas, the magazine of the Aspen Institute.