Barnwell nuclear dump ruling pending

Court could force tougher regulations

After a six-year legal war over safety at a nuclear waste dump, South Carolina environmentalists hope a pending court decision will force stricter disposal practices for the Barnwell County site.

The S.C. Court of Appeals, which heard the case last fall, is expected to render a decision early next year on the Sierra Club's challenge to the site's operating permit. The landfill closed to the nation in 2008, but remains open to bury low-level nuclear waste for South Carolina and two other states.

If the appeals court sides with the Sierra Club, it could force Chem-Nuclear to improve the way it buries garbage, which would better prevent leaks of radioactive material into groundwater, club lawyer Jimmy Chandler said.

For years, landfill operators have allowed rainwater to fall on open trenches lined with clay, instead of plastic. Burial vaults also have holes in them, allowing water to escape.

"We want to make Chem-Nuclear plug these holes and stop the leaks, as is required by law," Chandler said. "Routinely, this waste leaks out. According to the state regulations, there is supposed to be a barrier to prevent that."

Controversial leaks of tritium from the landfill date to at least 1982. The radioactive material has trickled off site and polluted a creek about a half-mile below the landfill near the tiny community of Snelling. No one's drinking water has been polluted, but the landfill is uphill from a small community that relies on wells. The creek eventually drains into the Savannah River.

Tritium levels in the creek are 23 times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's safe drinking water standard of 20,000 pico curies per liter for tritium. But the levels are within a looser state standard of 500,000 pico curies per liter, records show. The highest concentration of radioactive tritium beneath the landfill is 23.3 million pico curies, according to a December 2009 state environmental report. That's more than 1,000 times higher than the EPA's safe drinking water standard.

The landfill for years was the only site in the country that took all types of low-level nuclear waste from every state. Utilities, hospitals and other generators of low-level atomic waste have sent about 28 million cubic feet of radioactive waste to the site. Low-level radioactive waste ranges from hospital booties from ex-rays to more radioactive atomic reactor parts. South Carolina leaders backed the landfill for years because it generated millions of dollars in revenue for the state.

Chem-Nuclear's parent company, Energy Solutions, had no immediate comment on the court case. But officials have said they run a safe landfill that hasn't caused any health problems for people who live nearby. They also say they have improved burial practices since the site opened nearly 39 years ago.

While only South Carolina, Connecticut and New Jersey now use the dump, Chandler said it remains important to stop future leaks with tougher disposal requirements. Chandler said he doesn't agree with arguments that the site is so polluted that it isn't worth worrying about additional contamination.

"That's saying 'the heck with it, we will sacrifice the whole area in the Savannah River Basin and just write it off,'" he said.

At issue is a 2004 permit granted by state regulators for Chem-Nuclear to continue operating the 235-acre site. The landfill opened in 1971, but no one apparently ever challenged the site's operating permit until 2004. The Sierra Club appealed the state Department of Health and Environmental Control's decision to issue the permit, then appealed an Administrative Law Court ruling that upheld the DHEC decision.

During its legal battle, the Sierra Club has been denied records by DHEC and slowed by technicalities over which court had jurisdiction over the case. The case was finally heard in the fall of 2009.

The club says DHEC regulators issued the permit in violation of their own rules. State regulations require adequate barriers at the landfill to prevent leaks to groundwater, the Sierra Club says. But DHEC didn't follow those rules when it agreed to issue a new permit for the landfill in 2004, the club says.

Thom Berry, a spokesman for DHEC, said the agency's decision to issue the permit was proper.

"We believe the permit was properly issued and is protective of the environment," Berry said in a written statement. "Since the matter is still before the court, we will make no other comment on the case or any of the specifics."

The site is expected to take in about 13,000 cubic feet of waste this year, Berry said. During its peak years in the 1970s, the Barnwell County site was taking in more than 2 million cubic feet of waste, DHEC records show.