Leaks at Barnwell nuclear dump focus of court hearing

sfretwell@thestate.comFebruary 2, 2014 

— In the decade since environmentalists took legal action against a nuclear-waste landfill in South Carolina, garbage trucks have rumbled onto the site every month, carrying a continuous flow of radioactive trash.

And as heavy machinery has dumped hazardous refuse into burial pits, radioactive tritium has continued to pollute a tributary of the Savannah River just downhill from the state-owned site in rural Barnwell County.

This week, the Sierra Club goes back to court in the group’s fight for tighter controls on the dump. The S.C. Court of Appeals will hear arguments Wednesday that could force landfill operator Energy Solutions to change its burial practices, which the Sierra Club calls outdated and dangerous for the environment.

It’s a fight that has cost thousands of dollars in legal fees and many late nights of research, but environmental lawyer Amy Armstrong said the case is worth pursuing, even after all these years.

At issue is the long-standing practice of dumping nuclear waste in unlined, earthen trenches that are exposed to rainfall as they’re being filled up. Concrete vaults that contain waste are designed with holes to let water drain into the bottom of the dirt trenches, just a few feet above the shallow water table.

“There is no liner, it’s just dirt, so water can flow into the ground and it is carrying radioactive materials,” Armstrong said. “Tritium shows up faster in the groundwater. We don’t know what else will be showing up in the future.”

State regulators and the dump’s operator say the site doesn’t threaten anyone’s health and is being closely monitored.

The Sierra Club’s legal case, which dates to a March 2004 permit appeal, now seeks to overturn lower court rulings that went against the club and upheld the state’s license to operate the site. Overturning the state permit – which could close the landfill – is unlikely since the atomic energy industry in three states depends on the 43-year-old site to dispose of low-level nuclear waste.

Realistically, Armstrong wants the Court of Appeals to render a decision forcing Energy Solutions to tighten disposal standards, such as burying waste in sealed, leak-proof containers and adding roofing to keep rain out of the waste trenches. Or the company could begin placing the nuclear refuse on concrete pads and sealing the material off, she said.

The Sierra Club contends that the landfill does not minimize the movement of water into and out of the landfill, which allows groundwater pollution – and that violates state nuclear waste disposal rules. Armstrong said past court rulings have been disappointing because, if the decisions had gone the Sierra Club’s way, dump operators already would be disposing of atomic waste more safely.

Energy Solutions and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control say the rules have been followed.

A decision by the appeals court is not expected until later this year.

If the court sides with Armstrong, it could tell DHEC to require tougher standards on the disposal site near the town of Snelling.

The 235-acre landfill, established in 1971 in a spongy area that receives more than 40 inches of rain annually, was found to be leaking in 1978. Tritium-tainted water had reached a creek off the site within 20 years of its opening. The dump once was open to the nation, but then closed to all but South Carolina, Connecticut and New Jersey in 2008 under a plan developed by then-Gov. Jim Hodges in 2000.

Waste going to the landfill is classified as low-level, a category of atomic garbage that is not considered as dangerous as the high-level waste found at the nearby Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex.

Low-level waste, however, still is hazardous, and some of it can take tens of thousands of years to break down. The landfill accepts contaminated parts of reactors and other material from nuclear power plants.

Tritium extends into groundwater from the landfill onto adjacent property and into a small creek just uphill from a neighborhood that depends on wells. The creek also is part of the drainage basin of the Savannah River, a drinking water supply for the Hilton Head Island area.

So far, wells near the site have not shown contamination and public water supplies are considered safe. But landfill critics point out that tritium – one of the least dangerous radioactive materials – often is a precursor to deadly radioactive contamination that moves more slowly in groundwater. Some well samples at the landfill have in the past identified Carbon-14, Uranium-238 and Polonium-210 in groundwater.

Energy Solutions and DHEC insist that no one’s health is in danger because no one lives in the direct path of the contaminated groundwater. They say they’re monitoring the plume, which is tainting both the groundwater and the spring-fed Mary’s Branch Creek.

DHEC officials say that while the tritium levels exceed federal safe drinking water standards in numerous spots, including the creek, the amounts comply with another federal standard for tritium. The company also is adhering to the state operating permit, according to DHEC.

“Right now, the site is in compliance,” DHEC radioactive waste regulator Susan Jenkins told the Governor’s Nuclear Advisory Council recently.

DHEC director Catherine Templeton would not comment on the hearing this week, but in an email to The State newspaper, she said the Barnwell County site has plenty of safeguards. Those include water management techniques that direct water away from burial trenches.

The area also has 178 monitoring sites that are sampled every quarter. A DHEC inspector checks waste shipments that come to the landfill, and no waste can be buried in a trench without DHEC’s approval, her email said.

Energy Solutions, the parent company of long-time dump operator Chem-Nuclear, was not available for comment. But an official said recently that most burial areas have been closed and capped with a synthetic liner. The plastic-like material repels rainwater that falls on closed burial pits, company officials said at the Jan. 9 nuclear advisory council meeting.

“This greatly reduces the amount of downward percolation of water that falls on the site,” Barnwell site disposal operations manager Michael Benjamin said.

South Carolina has no plans to clean up the polluted groundwater. Armstrong said she’s glad the closed trenches have synthetic liners atop them, but the open burial areas are a continuing concern – particularly since South Carolina, Connecticut and New Jersey plan to use the site another 30 years. The site currently has about 2 million curies of radioactivity.

Tighter burial restrictions “won’t address all the harm that has already occurred, but that site is going to be open for a lot longer,” Armstrong said. “We are going to continue to produce radioactive waste.”

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