See what it’s like inside Barnwell’s radioactive landfill
Four decades after radiation leaked from a landfill for nuclear waste near Barnwell, unsafe levels of radioactive pollution continue to contaminate groundwater near the site, as well as a creek that flows toward the Savannah River.
Now, after 13 years of legal battles between the landfill's operator and environmentalists, the S.C. Supreme Court is considering whether to force changes that would make the site less likely to leak radioactive contaminants, landfill critics say.
During a hearing Wednesday in Columbia, environmentalists told the court that the 47-year-old state-owned dump has not been run properly. They want the court to order the landfill's operator, Chem-Nuclear, to use better disposal practices to prevent rain from falling into open pits where waste is buried. That could include roofs over the burial pits or watertight concrete vaults for waste.
Rain that falls mixes with radioactive materials in the burial pits and trickles into the groundwater, said environmental lawyer Amy Armstrong, who is representing the state Sierra Club in its challenge to the landfill's operating permit. The burial pits do not include synthetic liners to keep contaminated water from seeping through their bottom, Armstrong said.
"The vaults are open while they are being filled; they don't have any lid on them or cap on them.,'' Armstrong told the court. "The trenches are open to rainfall. There is no liner. The bottoms of the trenches are designed to allow water to flow out of them. So all of those pieces .... raise the concern.''
The Sierra Club's arguments are bolstered by a 2015 state Court of Appeals ruling saying site-operator Chem-Nuclear had done little to keep rainwater out of the trenches, even though a state regulation says the company is supposed to minimize water flowing into the burial pits.
Since the 2015 ruling, Armstrong said the state Department of Health and Environmental Control has done nothing to force Chem-Nuclear to follow the law. The Sierra Club wants the Supreme Court to require DHEC and Chem-Nuclear to make changes that will keep rain from washing over the nuclear waste.
"DHEC needs to hold Chem-Nuclear's feet to the fire,'' Armstrong said before the hearing. "They have not done that.''
Mary Shahid, an attorney for Chem-Nuclear, said the company has taken ample steps to safeguard the landfill. The company, for instance, pumps water from the burial trenches and has installed French drains to help get water out of the waste pits, Shahid said.
"I believe we comply'' with the law, Shahid said, noting the law requires Chem-Nuclear to "manage the water,'' not necessarily keep all rainfall out of the burial pits. DHEC's attorney, Jacquelyn Dickman, backed up Shahid's arguments.
It could be months before the Supreme Court decides the case, but whatever decision is made could have far-reaching implications.
If the court sides with environmentalists, it could force costly changes at the landfill that utilities depend on to take old reactor parts, resins and other low-level nuclear waste.
The Chem-Nuclear landfill is a nationally known low-level atomic waste disposal site that opened in 1971. The landfill is one of only a handful of low-level nuclear waste dumps in the country.
The 235-acre site once was open to businesses across the nation, at one point taking in three-quarters of the low-level nuclear waste generated in the country. It now takes low-level waste only from South Carolina, Connecticut and New Jersey.
The site, about an hour's drive southwest of Columbia, buries waste from nuclear power plants and other facilities. Low-level waste includes lightly contaminated hospital gloves and gowns, but also includes more radioactive refuse, such as nuclear reactor parts.
Chem-Nuclear is a subsidiary of Energy Solutions, a Utah-based company. Energy Solutions also operates a low-level nuclear waste landfill in the Utah desert, but much of the waste that goes there is not as toxic as the refuse going to Barnwell.
Leaking radioactive tritium is the primary pollution concern at the Barnwell County site. While tritium is not considered as dangerous as some other radioactive materials, it still is hazardous to people who are exposed.
The pollution is flowing into a creek that is a tributary of the Savannah River. At one time, some pollution levels were higher than those found on the nearby Savannah River Site, a nuclear weapons complex, The State reported in 2007.
At least a quarter of the monitoring wells near the landfill have tested for tritium levels that are at or above the federal government's safe drinking water standard, according to recent data compiled by DHEC. The state's environmental agency says pollution levels are stabilizing or decreasing.
DHEC says no one is threatened by the leaking waste. However, some residents in a nearby neighborhood, who rely on wells, have expressed concern about the landfill.