Facing Reality 

You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows

Late last week, word came down the pike that Energy Solutions, the parent company of Chem-Nuclear, had decided to drop its lobbying of the state General Assembly to prevent the closure of the low-level nuclear waste dump outside Barnwell, SC.

The Barnwell County dump was opened in 1971 and originally slated to close in 1995. As that closure date approached, Chem-Nuclear employed lobbyists to convince lawmakers to extend the date and, of course, got its way.

This was again the plan for the 2007 General Assembly session, but residents and environmental groups waged a tasty opposition campaign and convinced Statehouse members that being on the side of Chem-Nuclear could get them in hot water.

Last March, this campaign culminated in a 16-0 defeat of a bill to extend the closure of the dump by another 15 years in the House Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Environmental Affairs Committee.

And speaking of hot water, in August The State newspaper detailed radioactive tritium contamination in excess of federal safety levels in 30-plus private wells just south of the dump — something the paper pointed out that at least 12 lawmakers had no recollection of being discussed last spring.

Energy Solutions spokesmodel Tim Dangerfield told The State that the company counted its chickens and decided not to hatch plans to continue lobbying for the 15-year extension.

"After understanding all the politics behind everything ... it was in our best interest not to do anything more ... This discussion has been going on for the last couple of months in our company."

The Barnwell dump has been the only facility in the nation that would accept low-level nuclear waste from all 50 states. This includes not only medical waste, but also more potent forms of radioactive byproducts from nuclear weapons production and spent reactor parts.

Great. Our own little Love Canal.

Anyhoo, after July 2008, the dump will only accept low-level waste from South Carolina, Connecticut, and New Jersey. In 2000, the three states entered into the Atlantic Interstate Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Compact.

Attorney General Henry McMaster said his office would investigate the purview and effectiveness of the Department of Health and Environmental Control's supervision in the wake of August's bad press about groundwater contamination.

I think one thing a lot of people are unaware of is that the Barnwell dump management is under the aegis of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission as the facility predates the Environmental Protection Act.

NRC contamination standards differ from those of the EPA; they're not necessarily better or worse, just different.

South Carolina has a $120 million fund to supervise and manage the site and clean up any contamination following any departure by Chem-Nuclear.

However, Chem-Nuclear and DHEC would continue an oversight relationship of the dump for 100 years in the event of such a departure.

Of course, we might need to be growing gills by that time as South Carolina could be underwater.

Bob Guild of the Sierra Club commented to The State following Dangerfield's announcement, "We're pleased that Chem-Nuclear and its owner have acknowledged political reality."

I'm pleased as well that the dump will not be extending its shelf life. I'm just sorry that the public health issues got sacrificed to political considerations, but I'm not surprised.


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