Barnwell County bore the burden of burying the nation’s low-level nuclear waste for decades. Beginning in 1971 as a modest 10-20 acre landfill, it was taking all of the nation’s radioactive, commercial waste eight years later.
To reduce South Carolina’s burden, Gov. Richard A. Riley brought eight states together in 1982 to form the Southeast Low Level Nuclear Waste Compact, and Barnwell was slated to close when North Carolina opened a successor site in 1992. When political pressure delayed North Carolina’s site selection, Gov. Carroll A. Campbell extended the closing to 1996.
When North Carolina again defaulted, a proviso was slipped in an appropriations bill to withdraw South Carolina from the compact and re-open Barnwell to the nation. Despite polls showing that 75 percent of the public wanted Barnwell closed, the waste stream increased, along with the dollars.
When Gov. James H. Hodges was elected, he appointed former U.S. Congressman Butler Derrick to chair a bipartisan Nuclear Waste Task Force to create a new compact. We served on the task force, along with Sen. Brad Hutto and Rep. Lonnie Hosey from Barnwell County, Rock Hill attorney Ben Johnson, Sens. Phil Leventis and Tommy Moore, Reps. Joe Neal and Lynn Seithel, former Rep. Harriet Keyserling and representatives from the utilities and the medical-waste industry.
Lengthy negotiations resulted in legislation passing the General Assembly in 2000 to establish the Atlantic Compact and to close the facility to out-of-compact waste after July 1, 2008. All parties agreed on the compromise, and Barnwell County accepted $12 million from New Jersey and Connecticut for economic-transition assistance.
When lobbyists unsuccessfully attempted in 2007 to delay Barnwell’s closure, Gov. Hodges stated in a letter to legislators that “the bi-partisan consensus we reached a few years ago was the culmination of an effort over twenty years to find a responsible way to handle nuclear waste disposition, and at the same time force the nation to come to grips with its collective responsibility. We left the table feeling that the compromise was good for this and future generations of South Carolinians.”
South Carolinians applauded the restricted operations because Barnwell was ill-suited as a nuclear burial ground. A radioactive tritium plume under the site had migrated half a mile away to Mary's Branch Creek, which flows into the Savannah River, a major source of drinking water. As recently as last year, the S.C. Court of Appeals cited the operator for taking “no action” to prevent rainwater from falling onto the site’s shallow, unlined trenches.
Barnwell’s limited remaining space should be preserved for South Carolina’s own future disposal needs and those of our compact partners. If revenues from reduced volumes of waste being buried are insufficient to operate the site, operating plans and disposal rates should be revised.
South Carolina has borne its fair share of waste, both nuclear and hazardous. The idea of changing the compact law to allow more dangerous nuclear material to be buried at Barnwell in order to increase revenues is short-sighted. With a modern site now opened in west Texas by Waste Control Specialists, it’s also unnecessary for the industry.
Given South Carolina’s unfortunate legacy at Pinewood, our job is to reduce South Carolina’s waste burden, not add to it. In our view, the Atlantic Compact is working. We understand that an effort will be made in the General Assembly to alter the compact to allow for all states to again have access to Barnwell for their low-level nuclear waste. As members of the Senate and original members of the 2000 Nuclear Waste Task Force, we will vigorously oppose such efforts. We never want South Carolina to again receive the dubious sobriquet of being the nation’s dumping ground for nuclear and hazardous waste.