RALEIGH, N.C. -- Despite the most intensive investigation of a land parcel in North Carolina history, the state still has no radioactive waste landfill, and there is no guarantee one will ever be built.
On Tuesday, a key state legislative committee will meet to discuss the project's future. Work on the proposed landfill site in Wake County has been suspended in a squabble over funding between Gov. Jim Hunt and a coalition of states called the Southeast Waste Compact Commission, which has paid close to $80 million of the $111 million spent so far. North Carolina taxpayers have forked over $31 million.
Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi make up the commission. Radioactive waste from the region would be sent to the dump if it is ever built.
A review by The News & Observer of Raleigh shows taxpayers have gotten little or nothing for the money and that the main beneficiaries of the decade-long project are a number of contractors, most notably Chem-Nuclear Systems Inc., the company hired to develop and run the landfill.
The newspaper reviewed documents of the state group charged with overseeing the project, the N.C. Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Authority.
Among its findings:
--Chem-Nuclear, of Columbia, S.C., was paid $77 million, including the cost of moving employees to Raleigh, setting up its office, taking state officials to lunch, even running its coffee makers. It distributed more than $50 million to subcontractors. In 1994, the company won a $2 million bonus from the authority for submitting a license application on time. Two years later, the authority replaced Chem-Nuclear out of frustration with the lack of progress.
--The company's principal subcontractor, Law Engineering & Environmental Services of Raleigh, collected $32 million, much of it for detailed studies of the site that another consultant later asserted were "untested" and "inadequate."
-- Lobbyists earned up to $125 an hour to pressure politicians on behalf of Chem-Nuclear in Congress and the General Assembly. The arrangement put taxpayers in the unusual position of paying to persuade themselves to spend more money on the project.
-- A Charlotte public relations firm, Epley Associates, earned nearly $1.2 million. Among other work, Epley customized a Winnebago with exhibits about radioactivity, kept an eye on project opponents and clipped news articles, charging up to $35 an hour for each employee wielding the scissors. Epley's fees made up part of the $4.3 million spent on public relations.
Chem-Nuclear estimated it would cost $20 million to get the license to build and operate the dump for 20 years, but the contract set no penalty for cost overruns -- $57 million so far.
Chem-Nuclear's replacement in the licensing process, Harding Lawson Associates, has been paid $8 million for further studies of the site. It has not yet answered the groundwater question. The authority now estimates getting a license will cost another $20 million, while the recent work stoppage might boost that number.
"They can keep throwing money at it and throwing money at it," said David Farren, a Chapel Hill environmental lawyer who has fought the dump. "It can't change the fact that it's a bad site."
Hunt still supports the process he helped start in the early 1980s, but with the troubled project at another cash crisis, critics say now is the time to put it to rest. However, no one believes he has the authority to stop it.
"The Legislature passed a law that the authority shall build one," said Bob Heater, a member of the authority since 1993. "It doesn't say we can stop if we don't think we need it."
The authority's current chairman, Greensboro businessman Warren Corgan, said the 1989 agreement with Chem-Nuclear lacked terms to guarantee that the proper work was done within spending and time limits.
"I would never have signed that contract," he said. "I would have insisted on a work plan. I would have insisted on incentives."