COLUMBIA — Arguing that waste-contaminated water is spreading to the groundwater, environmental groups are challenging the state permit that allows low-level radioactive waste to be buried at a Barnwell site.
The South Carolina Environmental Law Project will represent the Sierra Club before the state Court of Appeals on Feb. 5.
They are challenging an Administrative Law Court decision that affirmed the license renewal, pitting them against the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and the site operator, Chem-Nuclear Systems.
The environmentalists are concerned about tritium flowing from the facility to Mary’s Branch Creek. Court records state that Chem-Nuclear’s disposal practice of pumping contaminated water out of a trench into lined ponds and other areas caused radioactive material to contaminate nearby church property in 1999.
The appeal emphasizes that the landfill operator hasn’t done enough to protect the environment from the contents of the site, particularly since the vaults that hold radioactive waste are not sealed to keep water out.
“The (disposal) vaults have holes in the bottoms, are not grouted and sealed at the top, have no cover or roof, and thus rain can fall directly into the vault during the (waste) loading period,” argues the environmental groups in their 2012 filings.
“The design allows rainfall that accumulates in the trenches to percolate into the soil, and drive the groundwater movement that is carrying tritium and other radioactive materials into Mary’s Branch Creek.”
It was revealed in October before the Atlantic Compact Commission that of 27 locations that had been tested recently, tritium levels at six sites were trending upward. Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen.
DHEC spokeswoman Lindsey Evans said in an e-mail after the October meeting that the findings were “not unexpected.” The tritium plume and the six locations were located in the town of Snelling, between Barnwell and Savannah River Site, near Aiken.
The plume begins under the disposal facility and flows southeast toward Mary’s Branch Creek about a half a mile away, where it enters the creek at the surface.
Meanwhile, the volume of waste entering the site is tapering off.
In 2009, the site received 34,500 cubic feet of waste. The next year saw a drop to 10,000 cubic feet, and then decreased to slightly less than 9,000 cubic feet.
Because of an agreement, fewer states are sending their waste to the South Carolina facility.
In 2008 the number of states was cut to only three: South Carolina, New Jersey and Connecticut. The landfill already stands at more than 90 percent full. Facility costs are paid by five power companies that operate 13 reactors. They are Dominion, Duke Energy, Exelon, PSEG and SCANA.
Regulators first became aware of tritium in groundwater monitoring wells at the site in 1978. The facility began its use as a waste receptacle in 1971 and Chem-Nuclear System has been the only operator. Since then, Chem-Nuclear’s license has been amended 48 times, including seven renewals. Tritium found at the site today is expected to decay to “negligible amounts of radioactive material” in 120 years, according a 2005 order.