Barnwell defends nuclear landfill

SNELLING, S.C. - In this rural county beset by high unemployment, the day when the local nuclear-waste landfill closes its doors to nearly all debris will be no cause for celebration.


Chem-Nuclear, a disposal site for low-level radioactive waste from hospitals and power plants around the nation, offers some of Barnwell County's few high-paying jobs, provides roughly 10 percent of its overall budget and pumps $1 million a year into local schools. It has also handed out college scholarships and bought equipment for police and paramedics.

The landfill has long been under attack from environmentalists, and a 2000 state law says that, starting next year, it can accept waste only from South Carolina and two other states. As that date draws near, lawmakers are considering extending the deadline to 2023.

Locals say that changing the law is vital and outsiders just don't understand how important the landfill is.

"It's been in Barnwell so long, it's part of who we are," said Berley Lindler, a jewelry shop owner in the town of Barnwell.

About 23,300 people live in Barnwell County, about 34 miles southeast of Augusta. The county has no rail lines or interstate-highway access, and unemployment is 10 percent.

Since 1971, nuclear power plant debris and radioactive hospital clothing have been buried at the site atop aquifers that run to the Savannah River.

In its heyday, from 1980 to the early 1990s, Chem-Nuclear employed hundreds of people. In 1980, it collected 2.4 million cubic feet of the solid, radioactive waste, which is stored in steel containers that are put in concrete vaults and then buried in long trenches. Bought last year by Utah-based EnergySolutions, it is now one of three landfills in the nation for low-level radioactive waste. Utah and Washington have the others.

In 2000, Gov. Jim Hodges led a campaign to wean South Carolina off radioactive waste. State lawmakers passed a measure to slowly choke off the amount of waste that could be sent to the landfill.

Plant manager Jim Lathan said restricting the waste to South Carolina, Connecticut and New Jersey means the landfill will run a deficit and will probably have to lay off some of the 51 workers who are left since the state law was passed.

"One county should not decide for South Carolina whether we should be the nation's dump," said Ann Timberlake, the executive director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina.

Locals point out that the site has paid $430 million in fees to the state Education Department since 1995 and provides jobs that pay an average of $49,500 a year.

Without Chem-Nuclear, residents, officials and educators fear rising property taxes, teacher layoffs and other troubles.