A NEARLY half-century-old landfill is losing money and has leaked radioactive waste into groundwater that feeds the water supply for 200,000 people, and the solution is … to fill it with nuclear waste that is even more radioactive than what’s currently going in?
Is someone worried that South Carolina might not have enough nominees for the nation’s annual “stupidest state legislation” contest? Because trust me, I’m pretty sure we have plenty of strong contenders already, without resorting to the nuclear option.
It’s no surprise that landfill operator Chem-Nuclear and its parent, Energy Solutions, would propose to give our state more millions in return for allowing it to bury material that is more highly radioactive than what it’s allowed to bury now at the state’s nuclear landfill at Barnwell. (Material from other states, of course.) The company has been playing let’s make a deal with S.C. legislators for two generations, dangling more money and sobbier sob stories before lawmakers to convince them that, really, it’s great to be the nation’s nuclear pay toilet.
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What’s surprising — or at least disturbing — is that the company would find a legislator willing to attach his name to such a plan. We can at least take comfort in the fact that so far it’s only found a Democrat — which is getting increasingly hard to do in South Carolina. But while it was Democrats who delivered South Carolina to nuclear, hazardous and medical waste profiteers in decades past, there are plenty of ruling Republicans today who wear anti-environmentalism as a badge of honor.
What we value
Of course Chem-Nuclear would be happy to give the state a cut of the extra revenue from the more dangerous waste. You can always find businesses that are willing to be taxed heavily in return for being allowed to do things that society deems unacceptable. Think of how much money we could collect if we allowed the crack cocaine of gambling — video poker — back into South Carolina. Or casinos. Think how much money we could raise if we legalized prostitution. Or marijuana. Or, what the heck, why not actual crack cocaine?
We don’t do that because we’ve decided that those things are bad for our state — they harm innocent people, they create public safety problems, they devalue neighborhoods, they make South Carolina a place where South Carolinians don’t want to stay and outsiders don’t want to visit — much less invest in. It’s a matter of what sort of state we want to be.
If you believe there’s nothing dangerous about swapping less-radioactive waste for more-radioactive waste, and maybe there’s not, the plan sounds pretty good: We put the same amount of or even less waste into the landfill, and still take care of the waste generated by S.C. utilities, hospitals and other businesses, but we swap waste that pays a low price of admission for waste that pays a high price of admission, so there’s more money to split between the operator and the state.
Except … it’s not that simple.
A two-decade fight
Not too long after an earlier generation of leaders sold our environmental birthright for 30 pieces of silver, we realized that burying nuclear waste is considered interstate commerce, which states aren’t allowed to restrict. So better leaders worked for years to convince the Congress to allow states to form compacts through which one member state would bury the nuclear waste of all member states — and exclude waste from all non-member states. It wasn’t an easy battle, since South Carolina was one of only two states that operated a nuclear-waste landfill, but under the leadership of then-Gov. Dick Riley we succeeded, in 1986.
Then we fought for nearly 15 more years to reach the agreements that would allow us to get out of the landfill business, while still having a place for S.C. companies to bury their waste. That never worked out, in part because our legislators couldn’t keep their commitment to close the landfill, what with Chem-Nuclear constantly promising them more money if they wouldn’t. Finally, in 2000, we joined a compact with Connecticut and New Jersey that required us to keep Barnwell open but accept only the small amount of waste those two states generated.
And after all that, we would consider inviting other states to start shipping us their waste? Again: Seriously? This is one genie that we would not be able to put back into the bottle, at least not in our lifetimes.
No one should pretend to be surprised that the landfill is generating less money than it used to. The compact was set and the restrictions were in place when Energy Solutions purchased Chem-Nuclear in 2006. We put the policies in place to make the revenue dwindle because we knew it was in the best interest of our state to reduce both the amount of waste that could be buried in the landfill and the radioactivity of that waste.
We knew it was in our best interest because serving as the nation’s nuclear dump comes with a landfill full of negatives, from endangering our water supply to making A-list businesses less interested in investing here.
Sins of the fathers
There’s money in the landfill’s clean-up fund, so this isn’t the same as the problem in Pinewood, where taxpayers will have to pay to monitor and clean up the hazardous-waste dump that state leaders allowed to be built on the shore of Lake Marion.
The problem at Barnwell is that there soon won’t be enough revenue to operate the landfill. So unless we agree to some way to raise additional revenue — that is, unless we allow ourselves to become a state we don’t want to be, again — taxpayers will be left holding the bag.
You could think of that cost — like the cost of cleaning up the Pinewood dump — as the price we have to pay for long-gone state leaders who were looking out for their friends rather than the natural environment that they were entrusted to protect. It’s the price we pay for leaders who didn’t recognize that protecting the environment isn’t just about hugging trees and saddling businesses with regulations they find burdensome. Eventually, allowing landfills in places they don’t belong, and inviting in the waste of the world, and allowing people to harm the environment will create problems that are so significant that someone has to clean up the mess, to protect our health and our attractiveness to investors.
Too often, that someone isn’t the business that did the damage and pocketed the cash. That someone is us, and that is grossly unfair. And the best we can hope from all of this is that we learn a lesson — which to date we clearly have not learned — about demanding that our environmental regulators actually protect the environment, rather than the companies that seek to profit from plundering it.
Meantime, here’s something our legislators need to recognize: You don’t solve a bad stewardship problem by continuing to exercise bad stewardship. You don’t solve a leaky landfill problem by burying waste that is even more dangerous.
And if you insist on allowing new companies to find new ways to despoil our environment, you’d better get plenty of money, up front, to pay for every problem you can possibly imagine. Because if you don’t, we’re going to get stuck with the bill, again, because eventually, those worst-possible problems are going to occur.