Finally dig out the toxic truth about Pinewood

Aerial shot of Lake Marion. (Jim Huff/Provided)

For us, and for many South Carolinians, decisions were made when we were much younger that will loom in perpetuity over Sparkleberry Swamp, the Santee-Cooper lakes and the Santee River. The consequences will remain ours to deal with for generations to come.

For over 35 years, the Pinewood hazardous waste site and its millions of tons of toxic waste have been a bone of contention in our home counties of Sumter and Clarendon. The dump is some 1,200 feet from the northern shore of Lake Marion that touches the Senate districts that we were elected to serve in 2012.

The vast majority of us who hold public office today had absolutely nothing to do with the questionable decisions that enabled this landfill to operate. It began as a kitty litter mine in 1972. By 1977, it had gained an industrial waste permit without the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) ever giving public notice. Three years later, it received interim operating status as a hazardous waste site, and nine more years passed before Laidlaw was granted a hazardous waste permit in 1989.

Perhaps the worst mistake occurred in 1992, when the DHEC Board caved to political pressure and reversed its original decision to require a $135 million trust fund for clean-up, leaving only a flawed $30 million insurance policy in its place. Finally in 2000, the South Carolina Court of Appeals ordered the Pinewood landfill to close, after the Sierra Club and South Carolina Environmental Law Project prevailed in a lawsuit against Safety-Kleen, the final owners of the site, who promptly declared bankruptcy. South Carolinians have since been left to deal with this menacing public health and environmental threat. The landfill is a “ticking time bomb” that has become our unwanted legacy in Pinewood — an otherwise beautiful place which many wonderful people call home.

Our state now owns the land and DHEC monitors the 2003 agreement that appointed Kestrel Horizons as the trustee charged with management and oversight of the landfill. After severing ties with Kestrel last year, DHEC named the Hagood & Kerr law firm as an interim trustee, and contracted with a third-party engineering firm to review the site and provide recommendations on funding and capital improvements.

Let us state very clearly that everyone in South Carolina has a stake in the decisions that we now face. Because the Pinewood site’s funds have dwindled, DHEC has asked the Legislature for just under $4 million of annual funding for basic monitoring and maintenance. The former trustee has estimated that multi-million dollar improvements might be necessary in order to more safely secure the site.

If the unthinkable occurs and we are ultimately faced with a breach or leak from the landfill, it will be to the detriment of all South Carolinians. No one can dispute that the clean-up costs would be astronomical. The folks who profited are long gone and sadly, the liabilities have since been unfairly and wrongfully transferred to us, meaning that we the taxpayers will be left “holding the bag” along with our children, grandchildren, and future generations of South Carolinians.

Recently, a proposal surfaced to provide an income stream which might assist with the clean-up of Pinewood by importing a more dangerous mix of nuclear waste to Barnwell from out of state. We understand the intent, but given that 70 percent of the toxic hazardous waste buried at Pinewood was from out of state, we cannot support bringing more dangerous waste to any community in South Carolina.

Frankly, we have been dismayed by the methods with which DHEC has chosen to address concerns raised by our local legislative delegation. Given the conflicting information that we have been provided and the concerns raised by the former trustee, we believe that the time has come for full public disclosure. A little over a month ago, we made a formal request to the chairmen of two of the Senate committees on which we serve to initiate a comprehensive, public inquiry into the current state of the Pinewood site so that we may ask questions of those whom we compel to testify as well as hear from others who may wish to speak and share pertinent information.

If we are to fulfill our obligation of being good stewards of the abundant, God-given natural resources with which our state has been blessed, it is imperative that we gain a clearer picture of the range of measures required to contain Pinewood’s toxins as well as the potential short- and long-term costs of implementing such measures.

It is our duty to ensure the proper precautions are taken now and not passed on as a spoiled inheritance to future generations.

Democrats Thomas McElveen and Kevin Johnson represent Sumter County and Clarendon County, respectively, in the S.C. Senate.