Seven years after South Carolina’s leaking nuclear waste dump closed to the nation, lawmakers have been approached about reopening the Barnwell County site to help pay for managing the landfill near the Savannah River.
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said he has been in discussions with landfill operator Energy Solutions about bringing in waste from states that are not now allowed to use the 44-year-old site.
A bill could be introduced soon, perhaps as early as next week, Hutto said. Democratic Sens. Thomas McElveen, of Sumter, and Nikki Setzler, of Lexington, said they also had been approached. An Energy Solutions spokesman acknowledged the plan Friday night.
The 235-acre landfill, one of only a handful of low-level nuclear waste dumps in the country, is leaking tritium into groundwater that drains into a tributary of the nearby Savannah River, a drinking water source for communities downstream in Beaufort and Jasper counties. The cities of Hilton Head Island and Savannah, Ga., get drinking water from the river.
A state law, approved in 2000, closed the dump to the nation by 2008, leaving only South Carolina, Connecticut and New Jersey to use it. The states formed an association, known as the Atlantic Compact, that restricted use of the dump only to companies in the three states.
Now, with revenues dropping from reduced volume, Energy Solutions is looking at a way to offset that, Hutto said. The plan isn’t final and could change, said Hutto, whose district includes the nuclear-waste landfill that lies uphill from a radiation-polluted Savannah River tributary.
The discussion centers on sending one type of waste now targeted for Barnwell from Atlantic Compact members to another waste disposal site, likely in the West, Hutto said. In return, a class of radioactive waste that generates higher disposal fees could be imported to Barnwell County from states that are not in the Atlantic Compact, he said.
“It would be almost like a trade,” Hutto said. “Could we move some of it over there, and take some other waste here?”
Energy Solutions spokesman Mark Walker said a fund that had helped utilities defray landfill costs is running low and more revenues are needed for the Barnwell operation.
“The proposal provides a long-term answer (to) how the disposal operation costs will be covered for the next 20-25 years and potentially creates annual revenue to the state,” Walker said.
Walker and Hutto emphasized that the volume of waste coming into Barnwell would not be increased and the landfill would not be expanded – only that waste would be swapped.
But Hutto said the idea involves importing waste with higher amounts of radioactivity to South Carolina in exchange for shipping out waste with lower amounts of radioactivity. Waste with lower radiation levels would go to an Energy Solutions landfill in Utah, where the company is headquartered.
Disposal rates are typically higher when radioactivity levels are higher in waste – and that’s good for a landfill operator’s bottom line.
“It’s fair to say that higher-activity waste will bring in more revenue,” said retired state Budget and Control board program manager Bill Newberry, who formerly recommended disposal rates for the Barnwell site.
Low-level waste is a type of waste that generally is not considered as dangerous as high-level nuclear waste, but it can be a threat to the environment.
Energy Solutions, an influential corporation for which an NBA arena is named in Salt Lake City, operates another low-level waste landfill in Utah.
Barnwell County’s low-level radioactive waste landfill was for years a revenue producer for South Carolina as utilities, hospitals and other businesses shipped their atomic refuse to the dump. In 2002, for instance, the landfill brought the state more than $45 million.
Today, the state is receiving no revenue. The site costs $5 million to $6 million to operate, an official with the Atlantic Compact Commission said Friday.
The dump has been a source of concern to environmentalists for years. The Barnwell landfill began leaking tritium within just a few years of opening. Tritium-polluted groundwater continues to flow into a creek below the site.
Legislators agreed in 2000 to close the site to the nation within eight years. But in 2007 Energy Solutions hired a team of lobbyists to push for a law that would reopen the landfill to the nation. Lawmakers killed the legislation and allowed the 2000 law to take effect, meaning the site remained open to just South Carolina, Connecticut and New Jersey .
Ann Timberlake, director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, said bringing waste to South Carolina with higher-levels of radioactivity from other states goes against the spirit of the 2007 legislative vote. It also isn’t good for the environment, she said.
“If the intent is to increaserevenues and swap less toxic waste for more lucrative and more radioactive material, it’s a bad bargain for South Carolina,” Timberlake said.
Barnwell landfill supporter Danny Black, president and chief executive at the Southern Carolina Regional Development Alliance, said he likes the idea. It could save jobs at the Barnwell landfill and help out a company that has been a friend to the community for decades. The landfill employs fewer than 100 people, according to the alliance.
Black said if Energy Solutions ever quit as manager of the site, state taxpayers would be left with the responsibility of the landfill.
“I don’t have a whole lot of faith in our federal or our state government in operating something like that,” Black said. “I kind of like (Energy Solutions) hanging around.”
State records show that Energy Solutions, the parent of dump operator Chem-Nuclear, has hired five lobbyists this year to discuss matters with the Legislature.
Lobbyists for Energy Solutions include Fred Allen, who worked on political campaigns for former GOP Govs. Carroll Campbell and David Beasley, and Tony Denny, a former director of the S.C. Republican Party, according to state Ethics Commission records. Additionally, Energy Solutions has retained former state Sen. Tommy Moore, an Aiken Democrat, Commission records show.
McElveen, who declined to reveal who he met with, said he had not made up his mind about the plan since a bill had not been filed. But he said he was skeptical after the meeting this past week.
“I naturally cringe when these issues come up around me,” said McElveen, whose district includes a closed hazardous waste landfill that is a threat to nearby Lake Marion.
Setzler said he didn’t remember which company representatives had approached him, but bringing waste to South Carolina from other states “is part of what they were talking about.”
One proposal under discussion, Hutto said, is to provide any excess revenue from Barnwell to the Pinewood hazardous waste site, which is low on funds to monitor for pollution and is being bailed out by taxpayers. McElveen said he didn’t hear any details about that.
In addition to the Conservation Voters and the state Sierra Club, Waste Control Specialists, a competitor of Energy Solutions, also likely would oppose the legislation. Waste Control Specialists operates a low-level waste site in west Texas near the New Mexico border.
Chuck McDonald, a spokesman for Waste Control, said his company has talked with a South Carolina lobbyist about representing the company, but had not hired that person. He said the Barnwell site once served a national need, but it is out-dated and a threat to the environment when compared to the site his company operates.
The Barnwell County landfill is within a few feet of groundwater and has no liner, aside from clay. Tritium has leaked through the clay and into Mary’s Branch Creek, which drains to the Savannah River. The Waste Control site has a concrete liner and is 600 feet from the water table in Texas, McDonald said.
“Who would think it is a good idea to take higher-level radioactive waste into a leaking landfill that is mere feet from the water table?” McDonald asked.
Max Batavia, director for the Atlantic Compact, said he had only heard talk of reopening Barnwell to non-compact states. But he said it was a surprise.
“This thing has come out of the blue,” Batavia said. “It’s a free country. Anybody can submit any proposals. But I for one thought this issue was put to bed back in 2000 on a bi-partisan basis.”