Senators debate waste for Barnwell nuke dump

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Some top members of the state Senate seem to be swapping playbooks on the issue of whether to allow the Barnwell County nuclear dump to accept more radioactive waste to generate more money for state coffers.

State Sen. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg), who represents the area where the facility is located, is pushing for the expansion of what can be dumped in the Barnwell site.

This week, he said he would “swap” placement of some lower-level radioactive material to out-of-state sites to make room for higher-level radioactive waste. Currently, the facility takes low-level radioactive waste from three different states, including South Carolina.

But state Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort) said he would greet any dump expansion bill “with a great degree of skepticism of anything that could jeopardize our water supply.”

Davis, who has a 50 lifetime score on the Conservation Voters of South Carolina’s legislative scorecard, represents a district “down river” from the Barnwell dump.

Hutto, who has a 72 lifetime score on the same environmental legislative scorecard, argues the state can charge more in fees for higher levels of radioactive waste that can be put to good use in state programs.

Hutto said the current agreement with the private company that manages the Barnwell site, Energy Solutions, already required it to conduct testing and provide abatement for the higher levels.

Hutto said an expansion, which would not increase the physical size of the dump, was not a “jobs thing,” that it would only increase jobs by about 20 positions at the facility.

A chairman’s skepticism

Senate Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee chairman Sen. Danny Verdin (R-Laurens), was not ready to comment on a bill that hadn’t been put forward yet. Hutto is expected to offer a bill next week.

But Verdin spoke this week about his concern of how effective long-term monitoring has proven in South Carolina, as well as around the rest of the country. Verdin, who owns a farm and garden center, said he was especially concerned about the accuracy of projected maintenance costs and “trust funds” set up to take care of plants in the future.

“From my perspective, the money is not ‘perpetual,’” said Verdin, noting that the half-life of a radioactive material could far outlive any trust fund. “That’s a national discussion, too.”

State Rep. David Hiott (R-Pickens) said he’s heard the “rumors” circulating about Hutto’s looming bill, but that no one has discussed it in the House Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee, which he chairs.

Once burned, twice shy

Controversial landfills have already burned South Carolina. In 2000, a Safety-Kleen hazardous waste facility in Pinewood in Sumter County closed and the company that ran it went belly-up. As a result, the state is now responsible for the ongoing maintenance costs of the site, which could cost millions of dollars, according to state sources.

Conservation Voters’ executive director Ann Timberlake said Hutto’s idea was a “bad swap for South Carolina.”

“Why would we, as a state, want to prostitute ourselves to the waste industry, again?” asks Timberlake.

Timberlake said she didn’t buy the argument that expanding what the dump accepts is the only way to raise money at the facility. She said trimming operational costs at the facility, such as limiting when they accept waste, should be explored first.

Hutto, according to Timberlake, is being loyal to his constituents, which includes the company that owns and operates the dump, at the expense of the state.

Hamilton Davis, energy and climate director at the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, criticized what he said was the “crux” of Hutto’s position, in that it’s acceptable to “elevate the risk to the environment and voters” in exchange for higher fees and an easier time for Energy Solutions.

“It’s incredibly short-sighted,” said Davis.

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