Haley fights plan for Barnwell nuclear dump

Virginia Postic/AP Waste is secured inside steel drums, encased in concrete vaults in an uncapped trench at Energy Solutions in Barnwell in a 2008 photo. A South Carolina law that took effect July 1 ended nearly all disposal of radioactive material at the landfill, leaving 36 states with no place to throw out such stuff.

COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley, in a preemptive strike aimed at heading off lobbying, announced Thursday she opposes letting a landfill in Barnwell County resume storing low-level radioactive waste from the entire nation.

During a news conference at the Statehouse, Haley said expanding the intake at the nuclear waste site could harm the quality of life in South Carolina and would be a “huge step backwards” for the state.

“We don’t sell our soul for jobs and money,” Haley said. “I’m not willing to go in and take in nuclear waste that our kids and grandkids are going to have to deal with.”

Haley said that her announcement was in response to Utah-based EnergySolutions contacting lawmakers and her staff about again letting every state dump nuclear waste at the landfill. A call placed to the company’s spokesman was not returned.

Since 2008, the landfill has been closed to all states except South Carolina, New Jersey and Connecticut, and the company is under a court order to address radiation leaking into drinking water supplies for Hilton Head.

“Now there’s an opportunity that’s being presented in front of the Legislature to be able to take in more nuclear waste from other states, and we just want the Legislature to know we don’t want to go in that direction,” Haley said.

No bill has been introduced this session that would reopen the landfill to other states. Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said there’s only been discussion on the status of the site, adding the state could benefit from a change and opponents “don’t even know what we’re talking about yet.”

Hutto said there has been no discussion on expanding the waste-storage site, which has about 13 percent capacity left.

“It’s going to be filled under the current setup,” Hutto said. “The question is how we do that and the timetable. I think that’s something we should review from time to time.”

According to a recent article in the Deseret News of Salt Lake City, what could be under discussion is a plan to swap low-level radioactive waste in return for burying “hotter” waste at the Barnwell site.

Under an arrangement being shopped before S.C. legislators, EnergySolutions would ship low-level radioactive waste to Utah that had been bound for South Carolina. In return, South Carolina would receive the hotter waste for disposal, generating more income for state coffers, the newspaper reported.

The Barnwell County dump site is a 235-acre expanse that opened in 1971 close to the Georgia line. The equivalent of more than 40 tractor-trailers full of radioactive trash from 39 states was buried there each year before South Carolina lawmakers in 2000 ordered the company to scale back because they no longer wanted the state to be the nation’s dumping ground.

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Trash sent to Barnwell included protective clothing and gloves, tools, cleaning rags, lab equipment, industrial measuring devices and equipment used to treat cancer patients. The waste was stored in steel containers that were put in concrete vaults and then buried in long trenches.

Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, said he would file legislation to prevent the site from being opened to take in that amount of waste again. He added that his main concern would be the potential for pollution of groundwater.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has been monitoring trace amounts of tritium in the groundwater south of the Barnwell site since 1978. The highest levels of tritium have been found near Mary’s Branch Creek, an area that’s off-limits to drinking, fishing, hunting, swimming and irrigation, but feeds into the Savannah River.

“This is the last thing we need for South Carolina,” Limehouse said. “We’re not the pay toilet for the United States of America’s nuclear waste, and I’m going to be fighting it tooth and nail because this is not good for South Carolina.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.