Officials to test water at nuclear waste site for contamination

COLUMBIA -- State regulators will test drinking water in rural Barnwell County to see if a 36-year-old nuclear waste dump has polluted private wells.

Recently opened state records show tritium pollution beneath the landfill exceeds safe drinking water standards established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The contamination, which flows off the landfill to a creek, also rivals pollution on parts of the nearby Savannah River Site, a nuclear weapons complex with a history of groundwater pollution, The State newspaper reported Sunday.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control will start testing this week in a small community just south of the landfill, agency waste regulator Richard Haynes said Monday. The agency will test other wells in the general area over the next few weeks, Haynes said.

"Right now, the first step is to look in that southern area," Haynes said. "Then we'll evaluate how far out we go" for other tests.

DHEC and landfill operator Chem-Nuclear believe drinking water is safe, saying the direction of groundwater from the site is to the southwest, rather than the south.

Even so, Haynes said, the agency will look for radioactive pollutants and some other toxic wastes to make sure well-water has not been affected. Tritium carries some increased cancer risk but is also an indicator of other pollutants in water. Chem-Nuclear spokesman Tim Dangerfield declined comment.

Stoney Stewart wishes the agency had checked his well long ago. Stewart said a DHEC staff member and a Chem-Nuclear employee visited his house Monday to discuss testing. He lives about a mile south of the landfill with his wife and young daughter.

"They ... apologized for not doing this earlier," Stewart said. "I told them it was a shame to have this put in the newspaper before we could get something done. This is nothing to play with."

He and other neighbors said they were unaware of the tritium levels until The State newspaper provided a map detailing the slick of radioactive contamination. Maps from 2004 and 2006 had been sealed at Chem-Nuclear's request until the newspaper appealed the decision and DHEC opened the records.

Chem-Nuclear, a division of Energy Solutions of Utah, has run the landfill since 1971. Since that time, the dump has buried more than 28 million cubic feet of low-level nuclear waste from across the country.

Today, the Barnwell County site is one of three low-level nuclear waste landfills in the U.S., but the only one that will take the most radioactive low-level nuclear contaminants from every state. Low-level nuclear waste includes lightly contaminated clothing, but also more heavily radioactive material such as nuclear reactor parts.

The landfill is scheduled to close to all states except South Carolina, Connecticut and New Jersey in July 2008, but Energy Solutions has been trying to persuade state lawmakers to grant a 15-year extension.