In a sharp rebuke to state regulators, the S.C. Court of Appeals said it wants a plan within 90 days on how the landfill’s operator and the state’s environmental department will begin following rules to limit radioactive pollution after years of non-compliance.
The plan is expected to assess how to keep rain from drenching the atomic waste, picking up contaminants and trickling into groundwater beneath unlined burial trenches. Environmentalists who sued for improved disposal methods favor covering open burial pits when it rains and plugging holes in concrete vaults that contain waste in the trenches.
At a hearing last winter, the court questioned why site operator Chem-Nuclear had not covered the open trenches to keep waste dry. The court said Wednesday that Chem-Nuclear and state regulators had done little to address the problem.
“It’s about time they start doing things better down there,’’ said an elated Sierra Club attorney Amy Armstrong, who heads the S.C. Environmental Law Project, a non-profit legal group that has been fighting for improvements.
Radioactive contamination has been detected in groundwater beneath the 43-year-old landfill for most of its existence. Much of the pollution is tritium, although a handful of other toxins have been detected. Tritium-polluted groundwater has seeped into a creek that drains toward the Savannah River and not far from a small neighborhood. Past tests have not found unsafe pollution levels in the river or private wells.
The Barnwell County landfill accepts low-level atomic waste from South Carolina, New Jersey and Connecticut, states that have a compact to use the 235-acre, South Carolina-owned site for disposal of old reactor parts and other nuclear refuse. The landfill once took waste from across the country and, at one time, was one of just two operating nationally. But former Gov. Jim Hodges limited the landfill’s use to three states by helping establish the Atlantic Compact. The site closed to all but the three states in 2008.
Wednesday’s appeals court decision overturns key parts of a 2005 lower court ruling that upheld a DHEC permit for the site. The ruling does not say that Chem-Nuclear will lose its permit, but it does focus on better disposal practices.
The decision questioned why DHEC had issued the new operating license for Chem-Nuclear without demanding tougher ways of managing the low-level nuclear waste.
Read more at Court rules against Barnwell nuclear waste dump