With funds dwindling to protect Lake Marion from a hazardous waste dump, the state’s top environmental regulator says her agency will seek $3.4 million annually in state money from the Legislature.
Catherine Templeton, director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said this week that the state could be out of money within two years to manage the closed Pinewood landfill unless more funds are appropriated.
The toxic waste landfill lies near the edge of Lake Marion, a drinking water source and major destination for boaters and anglers. The 279-acre dump’s former owner, Safety Kleen, filed for bankruptcy in 2000, abandoned the site and left management of the property to a trust. Questions about leaking hazardous waste have persisted ever since.
Safety Kleen’s bankruptcy settlement provided South Carolina a $1 million annuity to maintain the property each year and prevent leaks for a century, which isn’t enough. The site costs about $4.4 million on average to operate, Templeton told DHEC board members at Thursday’s monthly meeting.
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Templeton said the state needs to make up the deficit.
“We’re asking them for $3.4 (million) to supplement the annuity,” Templeton said. “There have been a lot of questions internally about whether or not that’s something that should be on DHEC’s budget.
“But we don’t really don’t want to mince words,” she said, noting that DHEC is trying to ensure the site gets what it needs to protect the environment.
At issue is how to pay for a variety of management costs. Those include overseeing an aging system of liners, which were intended to keep waste from leaking out. It also involves managing toxic water that has built up inside the landfill since it opened in 1978. That water must be pumped from closed parts of the landfill and treated, with residual material shipped offsite for disposal. Failing to properly manage the water raises chances a leak will occur.
Templeton made her remarks this week among increasing questions about potential discharges from the 36-year-old landfill, which is several hundred yards from Lake Marion. The lake and groundwater aquifers supply drinking water to thousands of people in central and coastal South Carolina.
Records recently obtained by The State newspaper show that toxic vapors are building up near the top of the landfill and are believed to be polluting shallow groundwater that could flow toward Lake Marion or into deep aquifers. The site needs an array of improvements that could cost about $20 million, former site manager Bill Stephens told The State this week. DHEC acknowledges it could cost at least $12.3 million to add pollution containment systems.
DHEC officials don’t agree that South Carolina needs to spend money on those improvements now, but the agency says annual operating funds need to increase. The funds Templeton is seeking would be restricted to only the Pinewood landfill, she told the board at its monthly meeting.
Templeton is expected to get some pushback from lawmakers, but not from Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter.
“If she’s asking for money, that’s very encouraging,” said Smith, who chairs a house budget subcommittee. “When you look at the needs this landfill is going to have in the future to be maintained and monitored, the trust fund is not going to be able to provide or meet those needs. We’re going to have to find a recurring revenue source.”
Smith and Columbia environmental lawyer Bob Guild said the state needs to brace for higher costs, based on Stephens’ recommendations that more needs to be done than just manage the site. New pollution containment systems also will cost money, they said.
“The question is whether that’s enough,” Guild said of the $3.4 million DHEC is seeking. The site received some one-time money from the legislature last year.
DHEC is trying to hire a consultant to assess the site to determine how much more needs to be spent to protect the environment. The landfill is now being overseen by two Charleston lawyers with experience in environmental issues.
At about 100,000 acres, Lake Marion is South Carolina’s largest reservoir. It stretches across multiple counties southeast of Columbia. The landfill accepted millions of tons of toxic industrial waste from companies across the country while it operated.
At one time, Safety Kleen’s predecessor, Laidlaw Environmental Services, was one of the most influential companies in South Carolina. Its headquarters were in Columbia. The company fought for years to keep the landfill open, despite attempts by environmentalists and two state agencies to close it. Laidlaw also defeated efforts to establish a $133 million cash trust fund for a cleanup.
Ultimately, the dump shut down after a landmark S.C. Court of Appeals ruling in January 2000.