Originally created 07/09/98

Landfill still open despite low revenue



Chem-Nuclear has no intention of closing the low-level nuclear landfill it operates in Barnwell County despite a sharp decline in business since South Carolina imposed a hefty tax on what's buried there.

The company probably will ask the state to reconsider the tax, which is generating less than half of what lawmakers expected for college scholarships and school construction when they imposed it, said David Ebenhack, the company's vice president for community relations and public affairs.

Chem-Nuclear blames the tax -- $235 a cubic foot -- for much of the downturn in its business. For the second straight year, the tax revenues are falling short of the $24 million the landfill is expected to put into a state scholarship program, Mr. Ebenhack said. Last year the shortfall was $8.5 million, and this year it is closer to $10 million.

The company has to make up the difference and does it with a surcharge on utilities that bring their nuclear waste to Barnwell.

As a result, it's not clear what hospitals, chemical labs, nuclear power plants and other longtime customers of the landfill are doing with their swabs and gloves, filters, sludge and old reactor parts -- a few of the kinds of low-level nuclear waste that used to come to the Chem-Nuclear site by the truckload. What is clear, Mr. Ebenhack said, is that the waste the landfill receives has dwindled.

Earlier this week, he told a newspaper reporter that "there is economic concern here."

But published reports that Chem-Nuclear is threatening to shut down the facility if the state tax stays in place are "simply not true," he said.

"We look forward to continuing to operate as long as landfill capacity exists and there is a need for the safe disposal of the nuclear waste that society generates," Mr. Ebenhack said.

Of 135 acres on the 235-acre site that are usable as landfill, 35 have not been utilized, and they could last another two decades, he said.

"We are in business and we expect to stay in business," he said. "We are not threatening to close."

Chem-Nuclear is continuing to study alternatives for boosting revenues, including a proposal for selling future space in the landfill to generate an education trust fund now.

The state Legislature tied education funding to Chem-Nuclear's continued operations in 1995 when there was intense pressure to get South Carolina out of the nuclear waste business. The landfill in Barnwell County then was one of only two such facilities in the nation.

Lawmakers agreed to keep it open and continue accepting nuclear waste from other states except North Carolina, which had not created a nuclear landfill within its own borders. A plan to do that in the western corner of Wake County, near Raleigh, N.C., has not materialized.

"The Legislature reasoned with the law of supply and demand, whatever the traffic will bear, that there was very little choice about what to do with nuclear waste, and we could collect whatever tax we imposed," said state Sen. Tommy Moore, D-Clearwater.

Now a waste facility in Utah has started accepting nuclear waste and its tax is $15 a ton. New techniques for storage and disposal also have changed the game, Mr. Moore said.

"It is irresponsible and wrong to say that Chem-Nuclear has reneged on its pledge to education in South Carolina," he said. "There are intricate dynamics and intricate politics involved."

The Clearwater senator said he would support a fresh look at the nuclear-waste tax.

State Rep. Roland Smith, R-Langley, said the Legislature should give serious consideration to whether the tax, because it is so high, has had the opposite effect from what lawmakers intended.

Mr. Smith, who serves on the state House Ways and Means Committee, said he would support a reconsideration of the tax.

Democratic state Sen. Nikki G. Setzler, whose district cuts into Aiken County, said it would be important, if the tax is reconsidered, not to abandon the commitments to education it includes.

Chem-Nuclear's concern is that expectations are too high, Mr. Ebenhack said. When anticipated revenues were figured, North Carolina's waste was not removed from the equation, although South Carolina was determined not to accept it anymore. Nor did anyone expect Utah to change the playing field.

Chem-Nuclear has not asked to be freed from its obligation to pay $24 million into scholarships, Mr. Ebenhack said.

But company officials believe a lower tax would lead to increased volume and equalize or increase revenues.

Under the present system, the landfill is generating about $140 million a year for scholarships and school construction. The projection was $300 million a year.

While Chem-Nuclear has fallen short of the anticipated revenues, it has given more than $135 million to school districts throughout the state and funded more than $50 million in scholarships.