The U.S. Department of Energy will be forced to pay huge fines to South Carolina if it continues to miss deadlines for cleaning up Savannah River Site’s high-level radioactive waste.
“We will not compromise the future of our state by moving the goalposts,” wrote South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control Director Catherine Templeton in a letter dated Wednesday to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
The site’s liquid waste, stored in underground tanks, poses “the single largest environmental threat in South Carolina,” Templeton wrote, adding that the department’s failure to meet its cleanup agreements could trigger fines totaling $154 million.
One of the state’s major concerns involves continued delays in completing the site’s $1.4 billion Salt Waste Processing Facility, designed to speed the liquid waste cleanup program.
That project was supposed to be completed in 2009, then 2011, and then delayed again until 2015. Earlier this year, officials set a new completion date of Dec. 31, 2016.
Templeton said, however, that DOE agreed to have that facility operating by Oct. 31, 2015, or pay fines of $105,000 per day backdated to Sept. 30, 2011.
“This potential penalty already exceeded $68 million, will exceed $154 million on Oct. 31, 2015, and will continue to grow until the agreed upon milestones are met,” she wrote. “(DOE) “has signaled an intention to request extensions from DHEC, rather than seeking the funding required for its commitments.”
It also has proposed fiscal year 2014 budget cuts that could cause more delays and missed cleanup deadlines, Templeton said.
“DHEC will not restructure these agreements simply because DOE decides to fund other sites instead of SRS,” she wrote, adding that SRS took the largest share of environmental management budget cuts for fiscal 2014.
“It simply makes more sense to invest in the site now than put off the work and pay penalties in the future,” she wrote; South Carolina intends to “fully enforce all milestones” included in the cleanup agreement.
Although some tanks at the site have been closed, at least eight of the remaining tanks are partially or completely submerged in groundwater and could become much more dangerous in the future.
“Present action can prevent future crisis, but the time to act is now.” she wrote.