AIKEN - A failure by state legislators to start repaying $80 million they have looted from a radioactive waste fund since 2000 could create a taxpayer burden more than three times that size by 2050, statistical projections show.
Lawmakers borrowed money from the account, which is meant to guard the state's Barnwell County waste site after it closes, to fill budget constraints.
If the account isn't restored, it could mean a loss of $266 million by the time the site is slated to close in 2050. Legislators vowed in 2000 to pay the money back over time. All they put in next year's proposed budget was an IOU.
"Whether we put it in this year or 10 years from now, the state of South Carolina is still responsible," said state Rep. Bobby Harrell Jr., R-Charleston, who leads the House Ways and Means committee.
Had the Legislature left the account untouched after taking $38.5 million in 2000, the $71.5 million that was there in 2002 would have grown to $400 million, according to a study conducted for the South Carolina Energy Office, which oversees the site. That's how much is needed to care for the burial ground until 2150, when officials say it should be environmentally safe.
But lawmakers couldn't help themselves in light of financial constraints, and in 2003 they took $48.5 million, said John Clark, the energy office's director. The loss could leave the state with just a third of the money it needs, according to the office's 2002 study.
More importantly, perhaps, the money came from customers who paid to bury waste at the site, which is run by Chem-Nuclear Systems LLC. Had the money never been touched, the site's customers, not taxpayers, would have paid for post-closure care.
The state's emptying of the account comes at a bad time.
South Carolina enters a compact in 2008 mandating that it take waste only from within its boundaries and from Connecticut and New Jersey, which will drastically cut back on revenue at the site. At the same time, producers of radioactive waste are producing less waste and compacting what they do produce.
"We are confident that the period through fiscal 2008 will cover (Chem-Nuclear's) operating cost, plus make some money for the state of South Carolina," Mr. Clark said. "We're not sure what's going to happen after that."
The site sold about 57,759 cubic feet of space in fiscal year 2001-02, generating about $32.2 million, said Deborah Ogilvie, a spokeswoman for Chem-Nuclear. After the company paid its operating costs, about $25 million was given to the state, which sends $2 million to Barnwell County every year and puts the rest toward education.
Business was better in 2002-03, when the site generated between $45 million and $48 million, selling about 66,000 cubic feet of space. Officials say that number will drop drastically, as most of the site's business has come from out of state.
On top of that, South Carolina and its compact companions send more waste to the private Envirocare of Utah site, which has rates as much as three times lower than the state-run Chem-Nuclear site.
Barnwell County Administrator Pickens Williams said money from the site makes up almost 10 percent of Barnwell's $11.5 million budget.
"We would like to see it continue," he said. "I would like for the state to look at it closely and see if opening the compact to other states is a beneficial move."
Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 113, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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