Five things to know about Columbia’s Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant
Pollution tied to infant deaths and cancer in adults has shown up for decades in the groundwater beneath a nuclear fuel factory less than two miles from Michael Daugherty’s house.
But the 41-year-old Daugherty, a lifelong Hopkins resident, never knew much about the Westinghouse plant, except that two of his cousins work there.
Now, in the aftermath of a recent uranium leak at the plant, Daugherty wants to know whether the factory he has driven by for decades is a threat to his community. He’s among multiple Lower Richland residents uneasy about the safety of the Westinghouse facility, an expansive plant that makes nuclear fuel rods for reactors that produce electricity.
“We’ve got well water here and that’s a concern because this stuff is in the ground,’’ he said. “That could contaminate our wells.’’
The uranium leak, to be discussed at a community meeting Monday night in Hopkins, occurred in June. It was reported to state and federal authorities on July 12, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Corrosive acid from a processing area ate a three-inch-wide hole in the plant’s floor, allowing a uranium-acid solution to contaminate soil beneath the Westinghouse plant, regulators said. Uranium levels more than 1,000 times higher than normal were found in the dirt under the leak, sparking questions about whether the contaminants would get into the area’s shallow water table and, from there, into drinking wells.
State regulators say the groundwater has not been affected by the leak and drinking water from wells is safe for area residents. Regulators base those conclusions on tests from a single well, located 188 feet from the leak site. They also say the general direction of groundwater in the area is away from residents’ wells.
DHEC spokesman Tommy Crosby said the agency still is investigating the leak to determine its extent. For now, “there is no danger to the public in any way, shape or form from this singular event.’’
Mildred Myers, a Gadsden resident, said she is glad DHEC is investigating, but that she always has been worried about the Westinghouse plant. The recent spill only reinforces her concerns, said Myers, a founder of the Lower Richland community group, S.C. Environment Watch.
“They always say they have got it under control and they are doing this or that. But they really have not done anything yet that is very efficient at cleaning things up,’’ Myers said. “So many things have occurred and things have not really gotten better.’’
Westinghouse had little to say about the leak or its operating history at the site, issuing a statement Friday that largely repeated previous comments that the public is not in danger. The company said it is working with DHEC and looks forward to “the opportunity to provide an update to the community at the upcoming public meeting.”
Westinghouse’s fuel plant opened in 1969 on a lonely stretch of a two-lane highway in the woods of Lower Richland. Through the years, it has been hailed for the jobs it provides.
Today, the sprawling, neatly kept facility is hard to miss on a drive down Bluff Road toward Congaree National Park, six miles from the plant’s gate. The industrial complex is carved out of the forest on 1,200 acres. About two dozen homes, several churches, a handful of hunt clubs and a convenience store are on Bluff Road within two miles of Westinghouse.
During shift changes, employees stream into the plant, presenting security badges on their way to work. About 1,000 people work at the Westinghouse facility. Many are highly skilled and educated in nuclear matters. Much of their work supports a process that stuffs tiny radioactive pellets into long, pencil-thin rods. The rods are shipped to atomic energy plants across the country for use as fuel.
But for all the good that many people see in the plant, Westinghouse has been cited regularly by federal and state agencies for safety and pollution problems.
Records reviewed by The State show water pollution on the property dates back nearly 40 years. Today, much of the pollution still has not been cleaned up. Westinghouse has tried to cleanse some of the polluted groundwater, but has had mixed results, records show.
Among the first problems that state regulators faced at the plant was a 1980 fish kill. Excessive ammonia nitrogen and fluoride killed fish in a spring-fed pond near the fuel factory’s wastewater plant, according to a 2013 report by the AECOM consulting firm for Westinghouse.
At least eight pollutants, including solvents and radioactive material, have been found in groundwater and, in some cases, ditches and ponds. There is strong evidence that one of those pollutants, trichloroethene, can cause kidney cancer, as well as lesser ills, including dizziness and headaches, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some of the material likely came from a facility on the Westinghouse property known as the “Oil House,’’ once used to store petroleum and drums of solvents, according to AECOM.
One of the most persistent contaminants is nitrate, a toxic pollutant that can sicken or kill babies that drink formula made with contaminated water.
Records reviewed by The State show that, in some spots on the property, nitrate levels were higher two years ago than they were in the early 1980s. In recent years, nitrate levels on parts of the Westinghouse property exceeded the safe drinking-water standard dozens of times, according to monitoring reports filed with DHEC and the AECOM study.
The nitrate pollution probably came from wastewater lagoons that have leaked, according to the 2013 AECOM report. The site’s wastewater treatment plant also likely caused fluoride and radioactive materials to contaminate soil and groundwater, the report said.
Westinghouse’s plant lies across Bluff Road from an old Superfund cleanup site, but records show that much of the groundwater contamination on the company’s property came from Westinghouse.
Pollution isn’t the only issue Westinghouse has encountered on Bluff Road.
Since 1993, Westinghouse has been cited at least 16 times over atomic safety concerns by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
One of the most serious incidents occurred in the 1990s, when uranium built up in a furnace, risking the possibility of a small explosion. In 2016, the NRC again cited Westinghouse over a uranium buildup, this time in an air scrubber, where it could have caused a radiation burst or small explosion. In neither case was the general public at risk, according to the NRC, but the agency said workers could have been seriously injured.
‘That place is a detriment’
To Lower Richland resident Myers, those incidents are unacceptable, even if the plant is an economic driver for the area.
“It provides jobs and I understand the pay is very good,” Myers said. “But as far as the community and our health, I think that place is a detriment.’’
Daugherty said he also wonders about safety in light of the recent uranium leak.
“If it blows up, all of us are dead,’’ Daugherty said as he sat under a big hardwood tree in his yard on Old Bluff Road.
In addition to residents’ concerns, officials at Congaree National Park also are watching the pollution issues at Westinghouse.
“It is on the park’s radar,’’ said David Shelley, a ranger at Congaree National. “We are concerned about any potential issues.’’
Many creeks that flow into the park are fed by groundwater. The park, which attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year, also takes drinking water from two wells.
If it does not pollute groundwater, contamination from the most recent uranium leak most likely would move toward the Congaree River — away from homes in the Bluff Road area, according to DHEC.
However, DHEC and Westinghouse say they want more information to help determine their next move.
To learn more, Westinghouse plans to tear out a 12- by 16-foot-section of flooring where the uranium solution leaked into the ground, said Ken Taylor, DHEC’s director of site assessment and remediation. Workers then plan to take more samples of the dirt below the factory floor to get a better picture of the contamination.
A key issue is whether to drill through a layer of clay, beneath the polluted soil, to see if uranium contamination seeped into a pocket of groundwater. But that would have to be done carefully. If not, contamination could seep through the clay and into the groundwater, worsening the problem, DHEC’s Taylor and Crosby said.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has had little to say about the leak since it was first reported publicly two weeks ago. But Taylor said the federal agency should be checking to see why a containment system didn’t keep acid from eating through the plant’s floor.
Westinghouse says the incident occurred in the containment area of an acid-spiking station. A small hole was found in a synthetic liner that rested atop a concrete floor, the company and DHEC say. Underneath the liner, there also was a coating on the concrete. The liner and coating should have protected the concrete from any dripping acid, Taylor said. But they didn’t, DHEC officials said.
“It is a very very strong acid,’’ Taylor said, adding the agency is unsure how long the acid leaked.
For Lower Richland resident Daugherty, the sooner the state finds answers, the better it will be for his community.
“I’ve been around here all my life. All my family is here,’’ he said. “That place up there is kind of out of sight. Nobody has ever told me nothing about it.’’
Community meeting Monday night
A public meeting about the Westinghouse leak is scheduled for Monday night at 6:30. It will be held at the Hopkins Park Adult Activity Center, 144 Hopkins Road in Hopkins. Officials with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control will be there.