The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is considering whether to allow a troubled nuclear fuel factory on Bluff Road to continue discharging contaminants from its industrial process into the air and the Congaree River.
DHEC says pollution released from the Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant will be within safe limits, and in some cases, discharge limits will be tougher than they have been before at the 50-year-old factory.
But skeptics aren’t so sure new pollution permits are warranted — at least not for now. Westinghouse has a recent history of spills, leaks, small explosions and the buildup of nuclear materials, all of which have made some neighbors in eastern Richland County nervous.
At a meeting held Thursday night by DHEC, Gadsden resident Frank Woods urged the department to move deliberately on the permits until it knows more about the extent of the problems and pollution that have plagued the atomic fuel factory on Bluff Road. He said Westinghouse has not been forthcoming about its problems historically.
““They are not reporting when things go wrong,’’ he said. “They have a history of not being honest and open with the public, or with DHEC. We can’t just give them another permit to continue to do what they are doing now. That is unacceptable to me.’’
Thursday’s meeting was unusual because proposals to renew long-standing pollution discharge permits don’t typically attract attention for many industries, including Westinghouse. The company first received a wastewater discharge permit in the mid 1970s. But recent mishaps have heightened awareness. Neighbors of the nuclear fuel rod plant worry about how groundwater pollution and accidents might threaten their community.
Several people peppered DHEC with questions, asking about groundwater contamination and threats to wells they depend on for drinking. The agency says it has found no pollution from the plant in private wells it has checked.
Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said he understands why people are concerned about discharge permits for Westinghouse.
“More people are paying attention about what is going on at that facility and what they’re putting into the environment because of the recent issues that have been revealed,’’ Stangler said before Thursday night’s meeting. Stangler said he is still reviewing the Westinghouse discharge plan for the river he monitors.
The wastewater discharge permit, which would be good for five years, allows Westinghouse to release limited amounts of pollutants. Contaminants released from the plant’s discharge pipe in the Congaree include phosphorous, a nutrient associated with sewage that can lower oxygen levels in rivers; mercury, a toxic metal that is polluting fish in the Congaree; copper, another metal with potentially toxic effects; and uranium, a radioactive material.
The air pollution permit, which is good for 10 years, allows for the release of hydrochloric acid, a colorless gas that can irritate people’s eyes and skin; hydrofluoric acid, a material sometimes used as a cleaning agent that can cause burns; nitric acid, a corrosive chemical that can cause severe burns; and a handful of other pollutants.
It is rare for companies with pollution discharge permits to be turned down when it’s time for the permits to be renewed. Still, DHEC officials said they have cracked down on Westinghouse, requiring tougher standards in both the air and wastewater discharge permits.
The agency will require more testing for unsafe levels of air and water pollution, and it is requiring tighter limits for the release of copper into the Congaree River. The agency also will require Westinghouse to check for evidence of fluoride, nitrogen, oil and grease, mercury and uranium in its wastewater discharges. The company also must check more groundwater wells for evidence of pollution, according to plans.
Both DHEC and Westinghouse noted Thursday that efforts are underway to fully assess pollution on the sprawling site between Congaree National Park and Interstate 77.
The company has signed an agreement with DHEC — which the agency say is one of the toughest of its kind ever struck — requiring Westinghouse to find groundwater pollution on the property, figure how dangerous it is and come up with a cleanup plan. The site has substantial groundwater contamination from years of operation.
Mike Annacone, the plant’s chief executive, said after the meeting the company is trying to win back the trust of neighbors after years of problems and a failure to communicate with the Lower Richland community. He said the DHEC accord, known as a “consent agreement,” is a good start, as are efforts by the company to attend community meetings like the one Thursday night in Hopkins.
“I’m very proud of this consent agreement; it’s in line with what our values are,’’ Annacone said. “We’ve done a lot of work to be better engaged with the Lower Richland community.’’
Westinghouse’s nuclear fuel factory, which opened in 1969, makes fuel rods for use in commercial atomic power plants. It is one of only a handful of plants in the United States that make nuclear fuel. The factory is a major employer in the Columbia area, with about 1,000 workers.
While it has been praised for employing people, the company has had multiple problems in recent years with leaks, spills and potentially unsafe buildups of nuclear materials. In 2018, radioactive uranium leaked through a hole in the floor at the plant. In addition to those problems, the plant also has a legacy of groundwater contamination, some of which went unreported for years.
Most recently, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and state regulators revealed in July that water had leaked through a rusty shipping container, gotten onto a barrel of nuclear material and caused it to leak through the container’s floor.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
How we did this story
Westinghouse is a major employer in the Columbia area, but the nuclear fuel factory has had troubles complying with atomic energy safety regulations and state pollution rules.
We are following this story to make sure the public is informed about the plant near the Congaree River. The plant is upstream from Congaree National Park, it isn’t far from homes that depend on backyard wells for drinking water and nuclear material can be dangerous to the public if not carefully managed.
The company says it is improving and is committed to running a model operation. But some neighbors remain concerned.