COLUMBIA - The South Carolina Court of Appeals has given regulators and the operator of a nuclear waste landfill in Barnwell County 90 days to present a plan on how they will limit radioactive groundwater flowing toward the Savannah River.

The Sierra Club wants Chem-Nuclear to plug holes in burial vaults and line trenches with plastic instead of clay to make sure rain at the site doesn't trickle through the ground and contaminate the groundwater. The group challenged the Department of Health and Environmental Control's decision in 2004 to issue a new permit for the landfill, which opened in 1971.

The landfill accepts low-level atomic waste from South Carolina, New Jersey and Connecticut, all of which have a compact to use the 235-acre site for disposal of old reactor parts and other nuclear refuse. The landfill once took waste from across the country, but former Gov. Jim Hodges limited its use to three states by helping establish the Atlantic Compact. The site closed to all but the three states in 2008.

Wednesday's decision doesn't say Chem-Nuclear would lose its permit but criticized DHEC for not obeying some of its own pollution rules and failing to hold the company accountable for conditions that contributed to radiation leaks, according to The State newspaper.

Radioactive contamination has been detected in groundwater underneath the landfill for most of its 43-year existence. Much of it is tritium. A handful of other toxins have also been detected.

The plan is expected to evaluate how to prevent rain from soaking through the atomic waste, picking up contaminants and trickling into groundwater below unlined burial trenches. Environmentalists who called for improved disposal methods say open burial pits should be covered when it rains and holes should be plugged in concrete vaults that contain waste in the trenches.

Chem-Nuclear has said the site is safe. A spokesman said Chem-Nuclear's parent company has not decided whether to appeal the ruling, and DHEC spokesman Mark Plowden said the agency was still reviewing the ruling.

Susan Corbett of the Sierra Club said Chem-Nuclear's landfill shows why the public should demand accountability from agencies and corporations.

"We must do a better job of dealing with this waste," she said. "We can't trust corporations or even our own government agencies to protect us."

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Information from: The State, http://www.thestate.com