By Sammy Fretwell
Four decades after radiation leaked from a landfill for nuclear waste near Barnwell, unsafe levels of radioactive pollution continue to contaminate groundwater near the site, as well as a creek that flows toward the Savannah River.
Now, after 13 years of legal battles between the landfill’s operator and environmentalists, the S.C. Supreme Court is considering whether to force changes that would make the site less likely to leak radioactive contaminants, landfill critics say.
During a hearing Wednesday in Columbia, environmentalists told the court that the 47-year-old state-owned dump has not been run properly. They want the court to order the landfill’s operator, Chem-Nuclear, to use better disposal practices to prevent rain from falling into open pits where waste is buried. That could include roofs over the burial pits or watertight concrete vaults for waste.
Rain that falls mixes with radioactive materials in the burial pits and trickles into the groundwater, said environmental lawyer Amy Armstrong, who is representing the state Sierra Club in its challenge to the landfill’s operating permit. The burial pits do not include synthetic liners to keep contaminated water from seeping through their bottom, Armstrong said.
“The vaults are open while they are being filled; they don’t have any lid on them or cap on them.,” Armstrong told the court. “The trenches are open to rainfall. There is no liner. The bottoms of the trenches are designed to allow water to flow out of them. So all of those pieces …. raise the concern.”
The pollution is flowing into a creek that is a tributary of the Savannah River. At one time, some pollution levels were higher than those found on the nearby Savannah River Site, a nuclear weapons complex, The State reported in 2007.
At least a quarter of the monitoring wells near the landfill have tested for tritium levels that are at or above the federal government’s safe drinking water standard, according to recent data compiled by DHEC. The state’s environmental agency says pollution levels are stabilizing or decreasing.
DHEC says no one is threatened by the leaking waste. However, some residents in a nearby neighborhood, who rely on wells, have expressed concern about the landfill.