Politics & Government

Why did nuclear waste leak at SC dump? Supreme Court rebukes landfill operator, DHEC

See what it’s like inside Barnwell’s radioactive landfill

Barnwell County's nuclear waste landfill has been leaking for decades, contaminating the groundwater and surrounding streams.
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Barnwell County's nuclear waste landfill has been leaking for decades, contaminating the groundwater and surrounding streams.

In a decision cheered by opponents of a Barnwell County nuclear waste dump, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the landfill’s operator hasn’t followed regulations that are intended to keep radioactive waste from leaking into groundwater beneath the site.

Environmentalists said they expect the decision to force landfill operator Chem-Nuclear to adopt stricter disposal practices that would halt leaks from the dump.

The court’s 28-page opinion orders the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to look again at how the operators run the 235-acre disposal site. The decision said landfill operator Chem-Nuclear has violated state rules that were written to keep rainfall from getting into burial trenches and polluted water from seeping out of the pits.

The Barnwell County low-level nuclear waste dump, which opened in 1971, has leaked radioactive tritium into groundwater near the Savannah River. Many of its burial trenches have not been covered until they are filled up, exposing waste to rainfall. Vaults in the trenches that contain waste have holes in them, allowing contaminated water to leak out.

“In short, the court ruled that the license failed to comply with the regulatory provisions designed to minimize contact between waste and water,’’ according to a news release from the S.C. Environmental Law Project, which challenged the company’s disposal practices.

Barnwell County’s landfill, the source of major political disputes since it opened, is uphill from a neighborhood that for years depended on wells for drinking water. The site has polluted a small creek that drains toward the Savannah River. The state has said the wells and the river are safe, but tritium leaks remain a concern to many. Tritium can be hazardous, but it also could be a forerunner of more toxic but slow-moving radioactive waste one day, critics have said.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control, which regulates the landfill, said it is reviewing Wednesday’s ruling, but had little else to say.

“The department will proceed in a manner consistent with the court’s decision,’’ the agency said in an email.

A spokesman for Chem-Nuclear’s parent company, Energy Solutions, said Thursday the landfill’s license is not in jeopardy, but the company will work with DHEC in the wake of the court decision.

“The decision confirms that issues of compliance with the license and interpretations are deferred to DHEC.,’’ Energy Solutions spokesman Mark Walker said. “EnergySolutions works closely with DHEC and all of our activities are reviewed frequently, without issue. We will continue to work with DHEC and implement any additional actions, if any, prescribed by them.”

The Environmental Law Project, which represents the state Sierra Club, argued its case against the dump’s operating permit before the Supreme Court last April.

The battle against the Chem-Nuclear landfill dates back almost to the time it opened 48 years ago. Enticed by millions of dollars in revenues the landfill generated for the state, the S.C. Legislature allowed the landfill to operate for years, despite leaks into groundwater that many said justified closing the dump.

Barnwell County’s low-level waste dump is one of the few operating nationally. For years, it took radioactive material from across the country, but in 2008, the state limited disposal to South Carolina, New Jersey and Connecticut. The site takes an array of low-level nuclear waste, such as reactor parts and hospital waste.

While the material isn’t as potent as high-level waste, much of it still packs a toxic bite. Some pollution levels beneath the site rival groundwater contamination levels on the nearby Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex.

“For too long, South Carolina has accepted low-level radioactive waste for .... burial in our soils using a seriously flawed design that allows rainwater to come into contact with that waste, be driven into the groundwater, and appear in our surface waters,’’ law project director Amy Armstrong said in the news release. “Thankfully the Supreme Court acknowledged those serious flaws and has sent the license back to DHEC to fix them.”

The Supreme Court’s decision upholds, in part, a ruling by the S.C. Court of Appeals against the landfill’s operators five years ago. The Sierra Club has been fighting a permit for the landfill for more than 15 years.

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