Citizens frustrated, distrusting after Westinghouse cleans up uranium contamination

Dangerous equipment malfunctions and environmental contamination from an atomic fuel factory near Columbia have been fixed, federal regulators and officials from the factory say. But those fixes have done little to quell the outrage of citizens and residents who say they’ve been left in the dark about the plant’s progress and who question its dedication to environmental safety.

At a Tuesday meeting, officials with the Westinghouse nuclear fuel factory on Bluff Road said they’ve completed fixes and clean-up of an air pollution control device known as a “scrubber” that once had three times the uranium build-up allowed by federal safety standards. Agents with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission discovered the issue in 2016 and said the problem could have caused a nuclear reaction or burst that would impact workers but not the Lower Richland area.

The Tuesday meeting at a banquet room in the South Carolina State Museum focused on the NRC’s 2018 assessment of the plant.

Regulators and plant officials also said soil contaminated with uranium was removed. The toxic substance, discovered in summer 2017 but not reported to the public until 2018, seeped through a hole that acid had created in a concrete floor, penetrating a weakened plastic lining before entering into the ground. Poisoned soil nine feet down was taken out and concrete put in.

Other fixes required by regulators are progressing, Westinghouse officials said, and regulators added the plant was on target to meet all their requirements.

Mike Annacone, vice president of fuel operations at the factory, emphasized a new “safety culture” was being implemented to guide management decisions and address workers’ concerns. He said equipment and building improvements were in the works that would further the plant’s safety and environmental goals.

“It’s not just about what we’re doing today. It’s about fixing the things that we’re working on in a way that (up to 25 years) down the road we’ll continue to improve,” Annacone said. “I feel strongly that we have the right plan and that we’re making tremendous progress on it.”

Meeting those objectives hardly dowsed the anger of citizens and environmental activists. During the meeting Lower Richland residents called plant officials and members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission “liars,” with one resident saying the regulators were “the cops,” and telling them “to do your job.”

Lower Richland residents said Westinghouse officials have promised for three years they would improve communications to the community but haven’t done so. Their concerns included the meeting’s location, the State Museum near downtown Columbia instead of in Lower Richland, where more community members could have attended.

Robert Reese, Lower Richland NAACP chapter president, was more measured than many in his comments to Westinghouse leaders and regulators concerning communications with the community.

“It really is an important piece of the puzzle to really make sure that our community hears some of the things that are going on and really sees Westinghouse as a good corporate and community partner,” Reese said. “We have not had that kind of communication.”

Tom Clements, an environment activist and head of Savannah River Site Watch, reflected Reese’s concerns about being left in the dark by the company and regulators.

“I’m pretty frustrated with you guys,” Clements said. ”Since the last time I appeared and raised questions I’m not aware of anything that’s happened. Zero.”

Annacone responded by saying Westinghouse met during the last year with the Lower Richland Community Advisory Council, an organization that formed after the plant’s problems. The company informed the council of the plant’s progress in addressing issues. Annacone also said they’d be stepping up communication with other community organizations.

Residents and activists railed about environmental concerns, including the fear of groundwater contamination, which they said was hardly addressed in the meeting. Regulators were putting the ground water concerns off on state agents instead of the feds taking charge, citizens said.

Leaks of radioactive materials from 2008 and 2011 sent uranium levels soaring in ground water on the factory’s site. Though no indications showed that the poisoned water had run out of the site into drinking water supplies, residents expressed concerns that little was being communicated to them about the water and they distrusted Westinghouse and regulators’ honesty about the situation.

DHEC, who more thoroughly handles the environmental aspects at the plant, noted progress in Westinghouse’s efforts, according to Annacone. DHEC officials were not at the meeting, though they were invited, an NRC official said, the absence drawing further ire from citizens.

Before citizens began to comment, Annacone said, “Our mission is to be the best stewards of the public’s health and safety.

The words seemed to fall flat.

“Some of us may be dead before you come up with a conclusion,” a resident later shouted out to the regulators and company leaders.

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC

David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.