South Carolina is gambling on nuclear waste to help pay for children's education. In Aiken County, millions of dollars for the school system's capital improvements are at stake.
Chem-Nuclear, a nuclear landfill in Barnwell, S.C., is struggling to meet its financial obligations to the state's education needs. If it fails, there will be no more handouts for scholarships and construction projects.
Changes in waste handling and high state tax have hammered business at the Barnwell site. Earlier this year, the company agreed to a legislative plan in which it guaranteed minimum tax payments to the state even if business continued to drop.
On Thursday, Chem-Nuclear officials unveiled a plan to quickly unload most of its space and create a $1 billion education fund. On paper, the plan looks good. But whether it will actually work isn't certain, area lawmakers said Friday.
"I have my doubts that this is going to work," said state Rep. Roland Smith, R-Langley. "I'm not so sure how successful this plan will be, which concerns me."
The issue is the survival of the landfill, Chem-Nuclear spokesman David Ebenhack said, and company officials have offered this plan to shore up dwindling revenues.
"We're in the business of making money. How long can we sustain it? I don't know. Quite frankly, it concerns me," Mr. Ebenhack said.
The plan's concept, in a nutshell, is to pay South Carolina now and use the landfill later.
The key is to find customers for the remaining 7 million cubic feet of space at the landfill, which has accepted waste since 1971. The rest of the space will be held for use by small waste generators such as hospitals and South Carolina users. Chem-Nuclear needs about half of the approximately 50 nuclear-power plants slated to shut down in the next 20 years to sign up for the plan.
Seventy percent of the state's money from the Barnwell site goes to school construction and the rest to college scholarships. Barnwell County also gets 5 percent of the tax revenue.
A subcommittee of the state House Ways and Means Committee will meet Wednesday to review other options for funding, Mr. Smith said.
Over the last few years, Aiken County schools have received about $2 million from nuclear dumping funds. That money is placed into the school district's five-year facility plan, which dictates renovations and maintenance. Funding for capital improvements at Kennedy Middle School and South Aiken High School were paid, in part, with the dumping funds.
If the plan is approved, the state would get $1.4 billion from the trust fund over 20 years at a 7 percent interest rate, compared to $1.1 billion by selling space gradually at the current rate.
A second battle for Chem-Nuclear will be convincing state lawmakers next year to cut from $235 to $200 the per-cubic-foot charge the state places on waste dumped at the landfill. The amount of waste being buried and the number of years must also be approved by the Legislature.
"We need to look at the fine print before we make a final decision," Mr. Smith said.