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Radioactivity Discovered in Water Below Dump Site

(Barnwell County, South Carolina) - Getting past the barbed wire that surrounds Chem-Nuclear is not easy, however, officials with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control are more concerned about what is getting out of the nuclear dump site.

"We dispose of low-level radioactive waste materials ranging from rags, tags, bags, and compactable materials to pieces of metal that have been contaminated," explained James Latham, Vice President of Energy Solutions in Barnwell County.

Energy Solutions owns and operates Chem-Nuclear. According to Latham, the company has had a problem with leaks of tritium, which is radioactive hydrogen, since the 1970's. "That's the first time we detected radioactivity outside of the trenches," he explained. "We've continued to track and report it since that time."

In a DHEC report dating back to 2006, traces of tritium were found in the groundwater below Chem-Nuclear. According to Latham, the chemical likely mixed with rainwater and seeped out of the trenches where waste is buried. It can move through things like concrete or other containers, he said.

In an effort to prevent tritium leaks, Latham says Chem-Nuclear places multi-layer caps over the trenches, which prevent even small amounts of rainwater from reaching the nuclear waste.

While tritium was discovered in the groundwater below Chem-Nuclear, Latham and DHEC officials say the chemical was not present in the well water of nearby homes. "Four of the nearby properties, their drinking waters wells are included in our routine monitoring programs," explained Latham. "We've seen no signs of radioactivity in those drinking water wells."

Last month, Robin and Greg Jarret moved within a mile of the nuclear waste dump. However, they have not had their water tested for contamination. "I would be interested because it does concern me," said Robin. "I hadn't heard anything about it until today."

According to Latham, his company has a standing offer to test wells in the surrounding communities.

In spite of the tritium contamination, Latham says Chem-Nuclear remains in compliance with state regulations for nuclear waste disposal sites. "They found no public safety or health issues with the operation of our disposal site," he explained. "We are at one-third of the required limit."

McMaster seeks explanation on withheld tritium data


Posted on Mon, Aug. 27, 2007

S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster called state health department officials to his office this morning to hear an explanation about why pollution records for a state-owned nuclear waste dump were not released during debate over the landfill’s future last spring.

McMaster toured the landfill in the spring, but said he was never provided maps showing details of the contamination plume. State legislators who debated whether to keep the landfill operating for the nation said they also did not know about the pollution maps.

The State newspaper obtained the maps under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act for an Aug. 16 story.

A 2006 plume map showed more than 30 monitoring wells beneath the site and on adjacent land had levels of radioactive tritium that exceeded a federal safe drinking water standard. A 2004 plume detailed similar contamination levels.

“Nobody said anything to me about all this stuff,’’ McMaster said.

Some of the wells on the 2006 map contained average tritium levels higher than those found on parts of the nearby Savannah River Site, a nuclear weapons complex with a legacy of groundwater pollution. In some cases, the Barnwell County tritium levels were hundreds of times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe-drinking water standard.

State officials have said they provided whatever information was “pertinent.’’ The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the landfill’s operator, Chem-Nuclear, have said the radiation levels do not jeopardize anyone’s drinking water off the landfill site in rural Barnwell County.

McMaster’s concern about not receiving the information follows comments last week by eight state legislators who worked on a bill that would have kept the landfill open to the nation past 2008. The landfill will close to all states except South Carolina, Connecticut and New Jersey at that time. Lawmakers killed the bill, but expect landfill operator Chem-Nuclear, a division of Energy Solutions to bring a new version back next year.

State representatives who said they were never provided the maps were Ted Vick, D-Chesterfield; Mac Toole, R-Lexington; Robert Brown, D-Charleston; Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens; David Hiott, R-Pickens; Kenneth Hodges, D-Colleton; Paul Agnew, D-Abbeville and David Umphlett, R-Berkeley.

Duncan said the recently released records detailing tritium pollution “reinforce the idea that we did make the right decision’’ when his agriculture committee killed the legislation last year.

McMaster spokesman Mark Plowden said the attorney general “is very concerned with the recent information that is only now coming out of Energy Solutions and DHEC.’’

The landfill has taken more than 28 million cubic feet of radioactive waste from around the country since opening in 1971. It is the only low-level radioactive waste dump of its kind in the country.

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.

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