Gov. Nikki Haley said Thursday she opposes reopening the Barnwell County low-level nuclear waste dump because burying radioactive garbage from across the country isn’t the kind of legacy South Carolina wants to continue.
While the landfill’s operators say opening the dump to the nation would be good for the economy and create jobs, Haley said the 235-acre burial ground presents potential long-term problems for South Carolina. Pollution leaks were first detected beneath the dump in 1978, seven years after it opened.
“We don’t sell our soul for jobs and money,” Haley said at a news conference. The governor said the state has other priorities it needs to work on and “taking in other states’ nuclear waste is not one of them.”
The governor has pushed a jobs agenda since her election in 2010 and has been quick to oppose environmental regulations she said could hurt the state’s economy. But she said quality of life issues matter in balancing jobs with the environment.
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Haley’s comments Thursday, the first she has made in the growing Barnwell debate, severely damage chances that a bill to reopen the site would pass the Legislature this year, several lawmakers said. No legislation has been introduced but is expected to be filed this spring.
The governor’s position also echoes that of the state’s past two governors, Democrat Jim Hodges and Republican Mark Sanford, who both opposed keeping the Barnwell dump open to the nation. Hodges engineered an agreement in 2000 that excluded use of the landfill to all states except for South Carolina, Connecticut and New Jersey. The landfill today is open to dispose of old nuclear reactor parts and other low-level radioactive trash, mostly from power plants in the three states. Sanford opposed efforts in 2007 to delay closure of the landfill to all other states. It has been open to only the three states since 2008.
Haley said her chief-of-staff was approached by representatives of Energy Solutions, a Utah corporation, about a month to six weeks ago about its plan. The company, the parent corporation of long-time Barnwell site operator Chem-Nuclear, also is making the rounds in the Legislature.
The company’s plan is to send some less radioactive waste now destined for Barnwell County to a site in Utah. In exchange, waste that is more radioactive would be brought to Barnwell County from states now barred from using the dump. The idea is to raise revenue. It is more expensive for nuclear power plants that generate atomic trash to dispose of low-level waste with higher levels of radioactivity.
But Haley said the idea isn’t worth the risk. Leaks from the landfill “are all the more reason why we don’t want to take a chance of increasing that hazard,” Haley said.
“I’m not willing to go and take in nuclear waste that our kids and grandkids are going to have to deal with,” she said. “We don’t want to go and see more of what we think could be hazardous coming to South Carolina in a time when we are doing so well.”
Democratic Sen. Brad Hutto, the chief proponent of reopening Barnwell, contends that the site will be managed for decades to protect the environment from the most radioactive kind of waste. He emphasized that the plan doesn’t include bringing in more waste or expanding the site. The dump today is about 87 percent full.
Since the site already is open to South Carolina, Connecticut and New Jersey, allowing other states to use it should be considered to raise revenues, said Hutto, an Orangeburg resident whose senate district includes the dump.
“It’s there, we are monitoring it for the long term, it’s going to continue to operate, it’s going to continue until it fills up,” Hutto said. “Nothing about what (the governor) is saying is going to affect the children of South Carolina. She’s certainly entitled to her opinion. It just seems to me that everybody is kind of getting the cart before the horse. We haven’t even put the proposal out there yet.”
Energy Solutions spokesman Mark Walker said the company was “disappointed in the governor’s comments,” but would continue to work with the state to “ensure the long-term viability” of the landfill.
Barnwell County’s unlined dump has leaked radioactive tritium into groundwater and into a tributary of the Savannah River, a drinking water source for Hilton Head Island and other communities downstream. The 44-year-old dump’s operators say it is safe, but tritium continues to show up at elevated levels in groundwater 37 years after leaks were first detected in the wetlands-filled area of western South Carolina. Last year, the S.C. Court of Appeals ordered the landfill’s operator to develop a plan to limit radioactive pollution.
The atomic waste dump generates fewer than 100 jobs. It has been a fixture in the community of Snelling since opening in 1971. At its peak, the landfill brought in more than 2 million cubic feet of atomic garbage, or about three-fourths of the nation’s low-level waste. Since it closed to the nation in 2008, the site is burying about 3,600 cubic feet of waste from the three states that still use it, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Today, much of the nation’s low-level waste goes to landfills in arid parts of Texas and Utah.
Low-level nuclear waste is a type of radioactive garbage that isn’t as dangerous as high-level waste, the most deadly form of atomic garbage. But low-level waste still can be hazardous, particularly certain classes that include resins and nuclear reactor parts containing higher amounts of radioactivity.
Pickens Republican Rep. David Hiott, who chairs the House committee that reviews most environmental bills, and Sen. Harvey Peeler, one of the upper chamber’s ranking members, said the bill has an uphill climb now that the governor has said she’s against reopening the site.
“For the governor to come out this strong, this early like that, should tell you” its chances of passing are poor, said Republican Peeler, a Haley ally from Gaffney.
Columbia Democratic Sen. Darrell Jackson, a critic of Haley’s, said he doubts there would be enough votes in the Senate to override any veto she might cast if a bill made it through the Legislature.
“I’m glad to see that she said that,” Jackson said. “It’s the right thing.”