South Carolina grants temporary stay on penalties at SRS salt-waste plant

South Carolina environmental officials have agreed to give Savannah River Site a six-week pass on citations and fines for failing to meet ongoing construction deadlines for a $2.3 billion facility being built to accelerate the cleanup of Cold War nuclear waste.

 

In a statement issued Wednesday, SRS said South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control will refrain from enforcing civil penalties through Dec. 18 for the site’s Salt Waste Processing Facility while discussions continue with the U.S. Department of Energy to establish new treatment capacities, schedules and funding sources.

The facility, which failed to meet “startup milestones” set for completion on Oct. 31, will process about 90 percent of the 37 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste that is currently stored in 44 underground tanks at SRS.

Construction, which has run nearly $1 billion over budget, is 89 percent complete and expected to be finished “well ahead” of its December 2016 deadline, according to the federal estimates.

“The department greatly appreciates S.C. DHEC’s willingness to allow the discussions an opportunity to resolve the issue,” Jim Giusti, a DOE spokesman, said in an e-mail Wednesday.

The facility, initially quoted at $1.4 billion, was supposed to start operations in 2009, before being delayed to 2011 and again until 2015.

Under modified terms passed in 2013, the project’s contractor, Parsons Infrastructure & Technology Group, agreed to pursue incentives to reduce costs and meet the new completion date on time, such as earning up to $2 million a month for earlier completion.

DOE announced last month that Parsons successfully installed 36 centrifugal contactors – a major milestone – to produce a decontaminated salt solution for disposal within a concrete grout matrix at the SRS Saltstone Facility. The federal agency said commissioning of the plant is 17 percent complete and that “radioactive operation” is scheduled for December 2018, if the facility passed an Operational Readiness Review.

Even with reported progress, DHEC said it will continue to closely monitor construction and resort to fines if deadlines are not met, according to a letter it sent on Oct. 29 to SRS Manager Jack Craig.

“DHEC fully reserves, and by issuing this letter, in no way waives authority to pursue an enforcement action and civil penalties to the fullest extent of its authority under the (facility’s permit) and state and federal law,” the letter stated. DHEC representatives declined comment Wednesday.

The federal watchdog group, SRS Watch, expressed displeasure with DHEC’s decision on the project, which is expected to play an important role in Cold War cleanup efforts at SRS.

“In order to demonstrate to the people of South Carolina that DOE can’t dodge legally established ‘clean-up’ milestones because of DOE project mismanagement and cost overruns, (DHEC) should begin levying the legally established fines against DOE,” Tom Clements, director of SRS Watch, said in an online post. “While the facility may be completed in 2016, it may not be operable until 2018, if then.”

Last month, Savannah River Remediation announced it had closed Tank 16 ahead of the Oct. 27 deadline in the Federal Facility Agreement among DOE, DHEC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Dean Campbell, spokesman for Savannah River Remediation, said SRS has 51 million-gallon waste tanks, with 24 considered “old-style” containers. Of those 24, he said, seven have been operationally closed.

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