The arrival of autumn usually signals a shift in seasons, which means cooler weather, leaves changing color and the return of football.
The sport that is played on the field recently returned at all levels, but a different kind of game – political football, if you will – is shaping up around the state, and it concerns Aiken County.
The recently announced plutonium settlement of $600 million has kicked off at least two lawsuits and a mad rush to spend the money from the federal government.
Aiken, Allendale and Barnwell counties should get the $525 million that’s left after the law firms who worked on the settlement get their hefty payout. Of course, it won’t be that simple.
A quick recap of events:
• S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson announced Aug. 31 that the state would get the money because of the lengthy dispute over storing plutonium at Savannah River Site. S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster was originally critical of the deal, particularly the $75 million chunk earmarked for attorneys.
• The Aiken Municipal Development Commission sent a letter Sept. 17 that formally demanded the $525 million be sent to Aiken, Allendale and Barnwell counties, where the nuclear reservation is located. “The risk of SRS operations and shipping/storing plutonium rests squarely within these counties,” the letter read.
• Two lawsuits have been filed. One asks that the General Assembly use the bulk of the settlement money to benefit the three-county area. The other, filed by a public watchdog group against Wilson, takes umbrage with the attorney fees. Now the money is frozen and can’t be dispersed until the two judges involved make rulings.
In other words, it’s become a political mess.
We won’t be surprised if lawmakers around the state want a piece of the pie for their regions. There are plenty of worthy projects, but this money shouldn’t go anywhere but the counties of Aiken, Allendale and Barnwell.
Last week, speaking to the Rotary Club of Aiken’s virtual meeting, McMaster said, “It seems to me that, because of the way the case arose and where it arose, that that area should be prominently figured in the expenditure or investment of those funds.”
There is even bipartisan support. State Sen. Nikki Setzler, a Democrat who represents a portion of Aiken County, echoed the Republican governor’s support.
“The citizens in the communities that have not only lived next door to this material for many years but have been impacted economically deserve to be compensated out of the settlement from the Department of Energy,” Setzler said in a statement. “We will work to make that happen.”
The recommendations from the Aiken Municipal Development Commission make the most sense. According to its letter, the City of Aiken and Aiken County share the most risk with about 50% of the SRS workforce living in the county. Aiken County is home to almost all of the 35 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste stored at SRS. That waste is classified as the state’s top environmental threat.
The letter also spells out that the entirety of the $525 million should go to the three counties in question, and should be dispersed based on a formula of employee population residence in those counties. Once that is determined, government bodies in Aiken, Allendale and Barnwell counties would decide how the funds are used.
“This issue is extremely important for our community and could positively impact our communities for decades to come,” the letter said.
Lawmakers shouldn’t snatch any of this windfall away from the impacted counties. It also doesn’t need to be a protracted battle that drags out for months or even years.
Seventy years ago, Aiken, Allendale and Barnwell counties answered the call when the federal government decided to build a nuclear complex in their backyards. It was a decision that had a momentous impact on the region.
This is neither a partisan issue nor a figurative football to toss around to grab political power or attention. This long-overdue compensation for the three counties, that have remained at risk for decades, will be a generational game changer for a deserving region.