COLUMBIA, SC — The cost of protecting Lake Marion from a toxic chemical leak could top $400 million over the next century as South Carolina wrestles with managing a closed hazardous waste dump in Sumter County, records show.
Since the landfill shut down in 2000, site costs have exceeded revenues each year by $4.6 million on average, forcing dump managers to use another landfill management fund to make up the deficit, according to financial statements released by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
But the fund being used to offset the deficit is virtually depleted – and some state leaders predict the financial burden will ultimately be the public’s.
Assuming the site continues to run $4.6 million in the red each year, that would leave a total deficit of $413 million over the next 90 years – the period required to oversee the 279-acre landfill once operated by the Laidlaw/Safety Kleen company near Pinewood.
State Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said he’ll press to set aside state money to offset the site’s financial liability.
“It is my intention to deal with this deficit,” Smith said. “Obviously our chickens are coming home to roost in the Pinewood dump.”
State lawmakers are expected to meet Tuesday with DHEC director Catherine Templeton during a budget session, and the issue is likely to come up. Smith, who grew up in Sumter hearing about the dump that accepted waste from across the country, is a member of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee. Smith last week didn’t have a specific amount that he would seek from the Legislature.
Templeton said she has no way of knowing if it will cost $413 million to operate the dump, noting that some of the expenses incurred in recent years may not pop up again and operating costs could drop somewhat. But she said earlier this month that costs could easily top $100 million.
To get a clearer financial picture, her agency will hire an independent contractor to assess the site and come up with a concrete cost to maintain and monitor the dump, she said.
“The only thing I know now for sure is it has a cost,” Templeton said.
She and Smith said because a variety of government agencies sent contaminated waste to Pinewood, sometimes from Superfund cleanups, the public will have liability to pay for some of the shortfall. Some of the government agencies include the N.C. National Guard, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the S.C. Department of Transportation, according to records obtained by The State in the late 1990s before the landfill closed.
“We as a state contributed to this,” said Smith, who acknowledged some legislators likely will oppose funding for the landfill’s maintenance.
Businesses also could face liability because they shipped material to the landfill. Records reviewed by The State at about the time the landfill closed show that hundreds of businesses hauled waste to Pinewood annually. Some of those companies, such as Lexington County’s Gaston Copper Recycling, have closed.
Smith, who wrote a paper about the landfill in college, said his primary goal is to protect Lake Marion and groundwater beneath the site by making sure it is properly monitored for signs of leaks.
“For us in Sumter County, we recognize the detrimental effects that dump could have on us,” he said. “For those of us who grew up in Sumter and Clarendon counties, this is our recreation. Lake Marion, which we call Santee, is our coast.”
The issue of long-term funding was brought up recently by Templeton, who became director in 2012, in an attempt to raise awareness. DHEC officials had known about the deficits, but had not made the issue a point of public discussion until she took over.
TOXIC LAKESIDE DUMP
Located just 400 yards from the wildlife-rich Sparkleberry Swamp and Lake Marion, the old landfill has taken in some 5.6 million tons of hazardous waste and industrial garbage from governments and industries across the Southeast.
The toxin-riddled garbage includes poisonous metals such as lead and mercury; hazardous farm chemicals such as lindane; and an array of acids. Dioxins, which can cause cancer, also have wound up there, according to DHEC records.
Pinewood’s landfill has three closed burial areas. They have a plastic liner below the garbage, as well as synthetic liners atop the buried waste, which are supposed to prevent water from getting in or out. But the liner in the oldest pit is made from a material that is expected to wear out and fail.
So far, nothing has been found to be leaking off the site and toward Lake Marion, a drinking water source and one of the state’s most popular recreational reservoirs.
Pinewood’s dump has a colorful, if not notorious, past. With the help of an ex-DHEC executive, the landfill opened with little fanfare in 1978 at the site of an old clay mine used to produce cat litter. The property was considered a good site for a landfill because the clay was said to provide a strong natural barrier against toxic leaks into groundwater and the lake.
The site soon became popular with industries that needed a place to dispose of hazardous waste they generated – and that helped make the landfill’s operator of many years, Laidlaw Environmental Services, an influential player in South Carolina politics. Laidlaw Environmental Services, which at one point employed about 600 people in South Carolina, had its North American headquarters in Columbia.
As some state leaders began to question the danger a leak would pose to Lake Marion, DHEC required Laidlaw to set aside $133 million in cash just to clean up a major spill should the landfill ever fail. Laidlaw made one cash payment of $14.5 million, but quickly persuaded the agency to change its mind on the cash requirement after enlisting help from state lawmakers.
That cash fund, however, was focused on the costs of a major cleanup instead of day-to-day expenses of monitoring.
And when Laidlaw’s successor, Safety Kleen, declared bankruptcy in 2000, South Carolina was left with a limited financial package to both manage the site and clean up a major spill if one ever occurred.
A 2003 bankruptcy settlement left South Carolina with about $49 million of the $133 million once sought for a major cleanup. The settlement also established an annuity that was to pay annual operating costs of the site, which included checking monitoring wells for signs of leaks and managing toxic water that seeped into the garbage dump years ago.
Records show, however, that the annuity has brought only about $1.2 million annually each year since the 2003 settlement. Average operating costs have exceeded $5.8 million during the past nine years, according to audited financial statements released by DHEC.
That leaves an average annual deficit of about $4.6 million. Under the 2003 bankruptcy agreement, a trust was set up to manage the site for 100 years.
MAKING UP THE DIFFERENCE
The fund DHEC has been raiding to make up the deficit was established to pay for major capital projects and could have been used to help pay for the cleanup of a catastrophic leak if one occurs, agency officials have said.
Now, that fund, which once stood at about $36 million, will run dry in two to three years, Templeton said. She said Kestrel Horizons, the company that is overseeing the landfill, has done a good job of managing the site with the funds it has, but some unforeseen obstacles have driven up costs.
An evaporator that had to be built to manage toxic water from the landfill cost about $5 million more than expected, for instance, she said. It was projected to cost about $7 million, but wound up at $12 million, she said. That has driven up costs substantially in the past two years, she said.
At this point, it’s up to federal and state legislators to figure how South Carolina will deal with the long-term costs of the landfill. It’s possible the federal Superfund program could be tapped, but that program has many priorities. The state also has a fund legally established for a major cleanup, but Templeton is doubtful that could be used for monitoring and maintenance.
Columbia environmental lawyer Bob Guild, who won a landmark citizens case that ultimately forced the landfill to close in 2000, said the Laidlaw-Safety Kleen dump is a sad chapter in South Carolina’s history.
“The lesson for DHEC is, ‘You did wrong for permitting this thing to begin with,’ ” Guild said. “You were slack in not insisting on cash. And once you accepted the crumbs from bankruptcy, you waited until the last minute to tell us you are running out of money and you’re raiding a cleanup fund.”