A Utah nuclear waste corporation has taken to the airwaves and the internet in South Carolina to build support for reopening its low-level atomic garbage dump near Barnwell.
State legislators who must decide whether to open up the company’s landfill to the nation remain skeptical, with some saying waste dumps aren’t the kinds of industry South Carolina needs anymore.
But Energy Solutions says the media campaign is an attempt to show that the 44-year-old landfill, which has leaked radioactive tritium into groundwater, isn’t a bad thing for South Carolina or Barnwell County.
In reality, the landfill, which now takes only waste from three states, could be a source of revenue for the state, the county and the company, Energy Solutions says.
That’s one message the company is trying to get across as its TV ads air across South Carolina. The ads began running about two weeks ago.
Energy Solutions also has launched a website, “truthaboutbarnwell.com,” in addition to hiring a team of legislative lobbyists.
The website says the company has an excellent safety record and is popular with Barnwell residents. It quotes Danny Black, head of the Southern Carolina Alliance business group, as saying that the company’s Chem-Nuclear division in Barnwell has “been a vital part of America’s nuclear strategy” for four decades.
Others featured on the website include a Barnwell County pharmacist, a radio host and a county councilman. All speak highly of the landfill operation. Many people in the Barnwell area defend the landfill, saying its owners have been friends of the community.
Company spokesman Mark Walker declined to say how much Energy Solutions is spending on the campaign.
“Opening up the site is going to better meet the needs of our customers, it’s going to generate jobs in Barnwell County, and it’s going to bring more revenue to the state,” Walker said. “That’s important to us.”
Energy Solutions is trying to reopen the dump to the nation so that it can compete nationally with its chief rival, Waste Control Specialists. That company now runs the nation’s only low-level nuclear waste landfill that can take all classes of low-level garbage. Its disposal site, lined by concrete, is in an arid area of west Texas.
The 235-acre Barnwell landfill lies in a wetlands studded area not far from the Savannah River in western South Carolina. Elevated tritium levels have polluted groundwater beneath the unlined landfill for more than three decades. The leaks came from low-level radioactive waste, a class of nuclear garbage that is not as dangerous as high-level waste, but which still can create environmental hazards.
So far, no bill has been filed to reopen the dump, but the idea advanced by Energy Solutions centers on bringing in more revenue by importing low-level atomic waste with higher amounts of radioactivity to Barnwell County.
That kind of waste usually produces more revenue because it costs more to bury. In exchange, waste with lower levels of radioactivity would go to the company’s landfill in Clive, Utah. The Barnwell landfill, which has about 13 percent capacity left, would not expand, Walker said.
“That would be a bad way to raise revenue, bringing more radioactivity to the state,” Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Clarendon, said. “We would go back to being the nation’s dumping ground.”
The Legislature agreed in 2000 to close the dump to the nation after decades of the landfill serving as one of the country’s only disposal sites for low-level nuclear garbage. The closure schedule slowly scaled back the amount of waste until the dump shut its doors to all but three states in 2008.
A campaign by Energy Solutions in 2007, similar to the one being used this year, failed to persuade lawmakers to keep the landfill open to the entire country.
Since then, only Connecticut, New Jersey and South Carolina have been authorized to send low level waste, including atomic reactor parts and contaminated resins, to the landfill. The company makes a gross profit of more than $1 million a year off the dump, but that amount was closer to $3 million before it closed to the nation, according to the state Office of Regulatory Staff.
Landfill critics say they’ve seen nothing to indicate keeping the site open will create any appreciable number of jobs or do much for the economy in Barnwell County. The site now employs fewer than 100 people. And like Johnson, critics contend the Barnwell site needs to stay closed to the nation because South Carolina has taken more than its share of hazardous, medical, household and nuclear waste through the years.
“I want to get every damned nuclear thing like this out of South Carolina,” Sen. Creighton Coleman, D-Fairfield, said. “I don’t want to have any nuclear waste here.”
Republican Sen. Larry Martin, one of the upper chamber’s ranking members, said he had seen the advertisements by Energy Solutions but was unimpressed.
“Apparently somebody is spending some money to gear up,” the Pickens County resident said. “But I’m not inclined to support this. We’ve been through the wars, and I don’t particularly care to take that path again. I just don’t see us reopening that.”
Coleman said he believes the Barnwell campaign is ill-timed because of problems the state is having with another toxic waste dump along the shores of Lake Marion. That landfill, at Pinewood, is threatening to pollute the lake, but is running out of money to monitor and prevent any leaks. Legislators now are having to put money into the budget because the landfill’s previous owner filed for bankruptcy and did not leave enough money to monitor the site.
Even some long-time boosters of the Barnwell landfill, including state Rep. Lonnie Hosey, said changing the law to keep the dump open could be a difficult sell.
“There seems to be some roadblocks in the way,” the Barnwell Democrat said. “The state of South Carolina has had enough of other people’s waste. Whatever comes will have hard passage through the General Assembly. It would be difficult.”
Energy Solutions is a nuclear services company with headquarters in Salt Lake City. It provides a range of services, including disposal, and employs more than 4,000 people worldwide.