Barnwell nuclear waste dump: Are open pits a threat?

sfretwell@thestate.comFebruary 5, 2014 

An official with Energy Solutions' Barnwell Complex in 2008 approaches one of the trenches where low-level chemical waste is stored inside concrete vaults.

THE STATE — FILE PHOTOGRAPH

COLUMBIA, SC Rainfall that routinely washes over open pits of nuclear waste dominated discussion during a state Court of Appeals hearing Wednesday, as judges tried to determine whether they should force better disposal practices at a leaking garbage dump near Barnwell.

A three-judge Appeals Court panel pointedly asked lawyers for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the landfill’s operator why burial pits at the landfill aren’t covered when the trenches are being filled with radioactive waste.

The key concern is whether atomic trash in the unlined, dirt trenches needs protection from rainfall so that nuclear materials won’t wash off the garbage and into groundwater.

The court must determine whether allowing contact between rainfall and nuclear waste is illegal under state law, as environmentalists contend.

Judges asked multiple times what landfill operator Chem-Nuclear had done to keep rain out of the burial pits, but they appeared dissatisfied with some of the answers from company attorney Mary Shahid and DHEC lawyer Claire Prince.

“In response to questions ‘What has Chem-Nuclear done?,’ your answer so far has been ‘Nothing,’” the court’s chief judge, John Few, told Shahid during the hearing in Columbia.

To Prince, he later questioned why unsealed vaults that hold nuclear waste in the open trenches have for years been exposed to rain.

“Isn’t it true that over all these years Chem-Nuclear has actually not done anything to keep that rain drop from landing on that vault?” Few asked. Saying he could buy a tarp at a hardware store to keep rain off the atomic waste, Few asked if DHEC had ever done that.

The court made no decision Wednesday on whether to require tighter burial practices for the landfill. It could be several months before the court rules on the case, which is an appeal by the Sierra Club to Chem-Nuclear’s state-issued operating permit. The Sierra Club wants the trenches protected from rain and burial vaults, which have holes in them, sealed better. The Sierra Club’s legal fight goes back 10 years.

Shahid and Prince conceded the burial trenches aren’t covered as waste is being dumped, but they said the company has taken many steps to improve operations since the landfill opened in 1971.

The company, for instance, upgraded its burial practices in the mid-1990s and it pumps out water that gets into the trenches, they said. Shahid also noted that waste going into the trenches is packaged in sealed “high integrity containers,” although she conceded the containers could be contaminated.

“It’s not coming in a box, it’s not coming in a paper bag,” Shahid said of the waste. She said areas of the site that no longer accept waste have been sealed with synthetic caps over the top to prevent water from getting in.

Chem-Nuclear, a division of national waste corporation Energy Solutions, has long maintained that the 235-acre, state-owned site is safe, even though tritium leaks date back more than two decades. Groundwater below the landfill already is polluted with tritium, which has trailed off the property and into a tributary of the Savannah River.

Energy Solutions and DHEC say the contaminated groundwater that has left the dump isn’t threatening anyone’s health. A small community that depends on wells is just below the landfill, but DHEC has said the groundwater is not flowing in that direction. DHEC says a groundwater cleanup isn’t necessary.

The Sierra Club, which brought the case seeking tighter burial practices, said Wednesday DHEC has fallen down on its duty to protect the environment from radioactive pollution — and groundwater contamination could get worse over time. Tritium is considered a precursor to more dangerous contaminants that one day will escape the site, the club contends. Those contaminants can last in the environment for tens of thousands of years.

Sierra Club lawyer Amy Armstrong, who heads the non-profit S.C. Environmental Law Project, said she was encouraged by the judge’s questions Wednesday. The Sierra Club’s Susan Corbett echoed those thoughts.

“It was very clear today that what we’ve been saying all along is true: Neither Chem-Nuclear or DHEC have done anything to follow their own regulations, which is to minimize the amount of rainwater or groundwater coming in contact with radioactive waste,” Corbett said. “As a result, it’s leaking and it will continue to leak.”

Waste disposed of at the Barnwell site once came from across the country, but the site closed to all but three states in 2008. The nuclear waste is classified as low-level, which isn’t as dangerous as high-level waste like that at the nearby Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex. But low-level waste has its own hazards that can sicken people exposed to sufficient amounts. Low-level nuclear waste in the landfill includes some cancer-causing toxins.

In another development Wednesday, appeals court judge Tom Huff, a former state lawmaker, revealed that he was once a supporter of the landfill and he offered attorneys a chance to challenge his participation in the hearing. But Corbett said the Sierra Club wasn’t interested in trying to stop his participation, saying Huff’s background makes him knowledgeable about the issue.

Huff, of Aiken, served in the Legislature from 1978-1996. He said in court that he was a floor leader while in the House on issues that involved the Barnwell County landfill and regulation of the site.

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