Toxic dump revelations surprise SC lawmakers

sfretwell@thestate.comJanuary 21, 2014 

Buzzards fly over the Pinewood waste site, Friday, January 17, 2014. The site, between Summerton and Pinewood is run by Kestrel and regulated by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) which overlooks the site in accordance with the South Carolina Hazardous Waste Management Regulations.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

— State budget writers expressed dismay Tuesday that no one told them for years that a closed toxic waste dump is running out of money to monitor for pollution leaks into Lake Marion.

Maintaining the landfill has, on average, cost about $4.6 million more than expected each year since a court forced the dump to close in 2000.

But lawmakers were in the dark about the financial problems until the Department of Health and Environmental Control revealed the shortfall earlier this month, state Rep. Murrell Smith said during a budget meeting.

“It probably should have been brought to our attention a little while ago,’’ Smith, R-Sumter, said.

Asked about the issue after the meeting, Smith said “I’m just a little distressed that this (money) has been depleted to the degree it has been without any mention to the Legislature.’’

Smith and State Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken, said the shortfall needs to be addressed because of the hazards of the landfill at Pinewood, which is about 45 miles southeast of Columbia.

The 279-acre dump is about 400 yards from Lake Marion, a recreation hot spot and drinking water source in eastern South Carolina. So far the landfill has not leaked, but it contains more than 5 million tons of hazardous waste and industrial garbage. DHEC officials acknowledge that a plastic liner beneath part of the site is wearing thin.

Clyburn said the problem is that “we don’t really know exactly what we’re dealing with.’’

Smith, who chairs the House budget subcommittee that discussed the landfill Tuesday, said he’ll introduce a budget proviso by early February to erase next year’s deficit.

The amount could be $2 million to $3 million, he said, although Smith cautioned that he’s still researching the exact amount he’ll present to fellow lawmakers. A long-term funding plan also is in the works.

Over the next 90 years, the time in which the site must be monitored to prevent leaks, the cost could be anywhere from $100 million to more than $400 million, based on DHEC records and agency estimates during the past month. DHEC plans to hire a contractor to come up with an exact cost to maintain the landfill over time.

Catherine Templeton, who became DHEC director less than two years ago, blamed the lack of information about the shortfall on past agency administrations that she said were reluctant to broach an unpopular subject with lawmakers.

“They were so afraid that the messenger would be shot that nobody wanted to talk about it,’’ she said, noting tongue-in-cheek that agency staff “did get under their desks the day that we started talking about it. And I understand why.

“But no, I’m not aware that DHEC has brought this to anyone’s attention.’’

An attempt to reach Templeton’s predecessor, long-time DHEC director and lobbyist Earl Hunter, was not successful Tuesday.

Templeton announced the shortfall earlier this month in what she said was an attempt to raise awareness about a growing financial challenge for the state.

The landfill at Pinewood has been a key part of the news in South Carolina for much of the past three decades.

Opened in 1978 with the help of an ex-DHEC regulator who later went to work for the landfill’s manager, the dump has accepted hazardous waste from across the country.

The longtime landfill operator, Laidlaw Environmental Services, successfully lobbied DHEC to back away from strict financial requirements in the 1990s to pay for long-term costs at the site. Among those was a $133 million cash trust fund the agency first imposed, but later dropped after Laidlaw drummed up support in the Legislature against the cash fund.

Many predicted the landfill’s owners one day would declare bankruptcy, leaving the state with the long-term burden of managing and cleaning up the site.

That’s what happened in 2000, soon after a court supported a citizens lawsuit that hastened the closure of the landfill. Later that year, Laidlaw’s successor – Safety-Kleen – declared bankruptcy, leaving a settlement that many said at the time might not be adequate for future cleanup and monitoring expenses.

Templeton said some state leaders also had reservations about whether the more than $150 million bankruptcy settlement was sufficient. Most of the settlement was to go for monitoring that today is proving inadequate.

Two other funds were left after the bankruptcy for major pollution cleanups, but those accounts provided less than half the $133 million initially estimated to deal with a catastrophic pollution spill.

One of those funds has been used to offset the monitoring and maintenance fund’s shortfall, but that fund will be out of money in two to three years unless the state finds other money to offset the deficit, Templeton said. The other fund, which has about $21 million, was set up by state law only for a pollution cleanup, not monitoring, according to DHEC.

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