When Sumter County's Pinewood landfill was one of the preferred dumping sites for toxic chemical waste from across the nation, South Carolinians were assured it would never be a problem. We were told there would always be enough money to take care of the tons of hazardous material buried near the shores of Lake Marion.
But who's really surprised that Pinewood's trust fund to maintain and monitor the site is nearing depletion and that the state is looking for a long-term financial solution to a problem that South Carolina never should have allowed to happen in the first place?
And who would be surprised if taxpayers are inevitably tapped to solve a problem that will be with the state in perpetuity?
Companies associated with Pinewood - Laidlaw and Safety-Kleen - said that the landfill was safe, and even if it leaked at some point, the plume of contamination would move so slowly that any risk could be dealt with in plenty of time.
So far, so good on that score. There have been no reported leaks, and the monitoring system continues to function. But any reasonable person would still have to wonder how in the world state regulators allowed this former kitty-litter mine, a stone's throw from one of the largest sources of fresh water on the East Coast, to serve as a toxic waste dump.
First, the regulatory process was far too friendly to an industry that South Carolina could have done without.
And though it was sharply criticized by local citizens' groups and environmental organizations during its 20 years of operation, Pinewood was supported by special-interest lobbyists and companies that used the facility. Together they helped restrain the better impulses of the Legislature to force its closure or at least require the operator to contribute an adequate amount for monitoring and cleanup following its closure.
Pinewood was finally shut down in 2000, and Safety-Kleen went bankrupt.
And now, as S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control director Catherine Templeton has made clear, the state is holding the bag - not just in terms of waste, but money. The long-term tab could be hundreds of millions.
If this sad morality tale doesn't adequately inform the Legislature on the foolishness of opening up South Carolina to out-of-state dumping, nothing will. Yet the "Business Freedom to Choose Act" (now there's a painful piece of spin) would do just that for out-of-state garbage. And it has strong support in the Legislature, having already passed the House. It would give business the "freedom" to create mammoth, towering landfills such as that proposed for Marlboro County, to serve out-of-state garbage.
Pinewood is an example of getting stuck with more than you ever expected. If any state should be wary about accepting out-of-state waste, it's South Carolina.
(And Pinewood should also be a warning to the state Department of Transportation, which is on the verge of building an oversized bridge over the Wando River. You build it, and we are stuck with it.)
South Carolina will always need disposal sites for its own waste.
But there is no good reason to open the floodgates to other states.
State regulators must ensure that dump sites like Pinewood and the Barnwell low-level radioactive waste facility never create a problem for public resources, such as Lake Marion. And DHEC should continue its commendable efforts to force the federal Department of Energy to clean up the highly radioactive waste at Savannah River Site.
But South Carolina doesn't need to serve as a doormat to other states by providing a welcoming regulatory climate for cheap garbage disposal.
Been there, done that.
State leaders should say, "Never again."