Key lawmakers say they weren't told about high radioactive pollution levels at a nuclear waste dump while they deliberated keeping the Barnwell County landfill open to the nation.
The state health department and the landfill's operator, Chem-Nuclear, did not provide information last spring showing more than 30 monitoring wells contained radioactive tritium exceeding a federal safe drinking-water standard, said eight of the 18 House agriculture committee members who voted on the bill.
Maps showing contamination levels and well locations were kept out of public view by the health department at Chem-Nuclear's request until The State newspaper obtained them for a story last weekend.
"We should have known about this; I'm appalled it was not brought to our attention," said Rep. Ted Vick, D-Chesterfield.
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"It's like pulling teeth to find out what the truth is," said Lexington County Republican Mac Toole, the agriculture committee's first vice chairman.
Last spring, House agriculture members killed the bill to keep the 36-year-old landfill open to all states past July 2008. But many expect Chem-Nuclear to try to change their minds next year. Chem-Nuclear is a division of Energy Solutions of Utah, a national nuclear-services company that stands to lose money if the site closes to all but South Carolina, Connecticut and New Jersey.
S.C. health officials and Chem-Nuclear have long acknowledged a leak of tritium occurred in the 1970s, but said this week the 235-acre site is not polluting anyone's drinking water and complies with federal radiation standards.
Still, the 2004 and 2006 maps, obtained recently by The State newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act, provide details many environmentalists, state lawmakers and Barnwell County residents say they were never told about. Among the details:
• Tritium levels exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency's safe drinking-water standard in about a third of the monitoring wells at the waste dump and below the site.
• Some of the tritium levels exceeded the EPA standard by hundreds of times and were higher than tritium readings on parts of the nearby Savannah River Site nuclear-weapons complex, the newspaper found. The EPA standard is 20,000 picocuries per liter; about 19 wells averaged at least 1 million picocuries, with some of those averaging 10 million picocuries.
• About a dozen of the tainted monitoring wells are outside the landfill, just north of a small community that relies on private wells for drinking water.
Community residents say DHEC has never tested their water. The agency has apologized and began testing this week.
The contamination also drains into a creek that feeds the Savannah River, a major drinking-water source in the Hilton Head Island area.
Tritium is a radioactive contaminant that can increase a person's risk of cancer. It also signals the flow of other, more dangerous pollutants from nuclear-waste landfills.
Chem-Nuclear's landfill is the only one in the country that takes all types of low-level radioactive waste from every state. Since opening in 1971, the landfill has buried more than 28 million cubic feet of the nation's low-level atomic garbage.
Some of this is lightly contaminated clothing from hospitals, but other nuclear refuse is more highly radioactive atomic-reactor parts.
Energy Solutions spokesman Tim Dangerfield deferred comments Friday to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The agency issued a statement saying staff members toured the Barnwell site with legislators and were available to answer any questions. The agency also had included a link on its Web site with all "pertinent information," the statement said.
House Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee members said DHEC has a responsibility to do more than respond to questions.
"I expect more," said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens. "This is a state agency charged with protecting the public's health and providing the Legislature the information it needs."
Rep. Robert Brown, D-Charleston, questioned DHEC's relationship with Chem-Nuclear. "It sounds to me like Chem-Nuclear is running DHEC. I don't like it."
Duncan and Brown were members of a five-person subcommittee that conducted public hearings last spring. But they, along with subcommittee members David Umphlett, R-Berkeley, and Paul Agnew, D-Abbeville, claim they were left in the dark about the 2004 and 2006 plume maps. Full agriculture committee members who said they did know about the maps were Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens, and Kenneth Hodges, D-Colleton.
Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.