Upset about contamination from a Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant, Lower Richland residents lambasted the company Monday night for failing to tell them about a recent uranium leak and for ignoring the rural, working-class community the company has operated in for nearly 50 years.
At a meeting in Hopkins to discuss the leak, company executive Mike Annacone pledged to improve relations with the community after conceding that Westinghouse had fallen down on the job. Westinghouse had promised in recent years to improve communication with the community, but that hasn’t happened, company executives told the overflow crowd at Hopkins Park Adult Activity Center.
“I was putting my focus on the site and I lost focus on all of y’all,’’ said Annacone, who was brought in two years ago to improve the plant after years of safety violations. “I’m sorry about that.’’
The leak occurred in June, but high levels of uranium in the soil were not reported to state and federal regulators until July 12. Some people said they knew nothing of the leak until reading about it in The State newspaper in late July, shortly after the leak became public on a federal website.
Uranium levels in the soil were more than 1,000 times higher than what is normally found in dirt. The leak occurred when acid from part of the plant ate through a concrete floor, allowing the hazardous pollution to occur. A plastic liner atop the concrete failed, exposing the concrete to acid. Westinghouse and state regulators now are investigating to learn more about the contamination.
Despite assurances from Westinghouse that it would address the leak and reach out to the community, many in the crowd said they’ve heard that before. Some said they didn’t trust Westinghouse.
“Community meetings are good, but don’t come and give us the corporate line,’’ Brenda Miller said to applause and cheers. “Don’t come and use scientific and $50 words. Break it down. Tell us what’s really going on. I really don’t believe a thing you’re saying.’’
Monday’s meeting drew a cross-section of people, ranging from African-American residents of Lower Richland to white anti-nuclear activists from Columbia -- and all seemed to agree that Westinghouse needs to improve. More than 100 people attended, some peering in from a hallway because the small meeting room was so crowded.
Miller and others said the community meeting had produced few answers from Westinghouse or the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. DHEC and Westinghouse used charts to show what happened and why they don’t think the leak threatens the community.
“All we want from you is the truth,’’ said Karen Irick, a Lower Richland resident and DHEC critic. “DHEC, you are the state agency. You are supposed to protect us. You have been here since (1969) Westinghouse. There is always something going on over there.’’
DHEC officials said they’ve found no evidence that uranium that polluted the soil has gotten into groundwater. If it does, they said groundwater is flowing toward creeks and ponds near the Congaree River — not toward Hopkins where most people live. Neither Westinghouse nor DHEC could say how much uranium-acid solution leaked into the environment.
Regardless of whether the leak pollutes wells or not, some speakers at the meeting said Westinghouse’s overall operating practices are a concern. Groundwater pollution from plant operations has existed on the site for nearly 40 years, although the company says it has never gotten off site.
“How is Westinghouse going to be held accountable for the historical polluting of this area?’’ asked Jane Durieux, a Lower Richland resident upset about the company’s track record of groundwater pollution. “We want the pollution to stop. We’d like to not have it. It affects us in many ways.’’
The Westinghouse plant opened in 1969 in a rural area of eastern Richland County between Columbia and what is now Congaree National Park. It was hailed as a jobs provider, eventually employing 1,000 people. Through the years, the company has had its share of difficulties with nuclear safety and groundwater contamination.
Federal regulators have cited the company dozens of times over nuclear-safety issues, at one point fining Westinghouse $24,000 in the early 1990s for a uranium buildup in a furnace.
Friends of Congaree Swamp, a support group for Congaree National Park, expressed concern in a statement Monday afternoon about a decision to discontinue a groundwater cleanup system on the property in 2011. DHEC and Westinghouse agreed the system had reached the limits of how much it could clean up groundwater after reducing contaminants in some spots by more than 70 percent, records show.
But the friends group says more aggressive cleanup efforts should be revived “to ensure that contaminants .... do not continue to migrate to surface waters of the Congaree floodplain, nor threaten nearby property owners.’’
The Rev. Frank Woods, who pastors a church in Lower Richland, peppered DHEC and Westinghouse with questions about the nuclear leak, the lack of notice to the public and the threat to drinking water in an area where people rely on backyard wells.
““We in this community depend on groundwater for our livelihoods,’’ Woods said, noting that the plant’s system to contain leaks failed. “It seems to me irresponsible for Westinghouse to have that type of setup over there ....., there should be something better than that to assure the community that even if you had a leak, it wouldn’t get into the soil.’’