COLUMBIA - A plan to keep the Barnwell County nuclear site open to the nation was sunk by a report that the site has half the capacity lawmakers had believed, the bill's sponsor said.
Regardless, the bill would have been dead in the Senate, a key senator said.
Under the Atlantic Compact signed in 2000, the low-level nuclear site is scheduled to close its doors to waste from all but New Jersey, Connecticut and South Carolina beginning July 1, 2008. Rep. Billy Witherspoon, R-Conway, proposed allowing the site to continue to take waste from other states for an additional 15 years.
But the committee he leads - Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs - soundly defeated the proposal Wednesday on a 16-0 vote.
Mr. Witherspoon was present, but did not vote.
The committee, though, "made the right decision," he said.
Mr. Witherspoon said lawmakers had been basing their discussion, which included more than eight hours of public input, on incorrect data they received in their information packets that showed there is 2.4 million cubic feet of storage space left at the site, which EnergySolutions took over from Chem-Nuclear.
Committee members learned in the past week, however, that the remaining capacity actually is 1.2 million cubic feet, according to a report EnergySolutions gave to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control in December.
Eight hundred thousand of that is committed to New Jersey and Connecticut, leaving 400,000 cubic feet to be used by South Carolina as plants here are decommissioned.
So there's just not enough extra capacity to justify keeping the site open to other states, Mr. Witherspoon said.
EnergySolutions has applied to DHEC for permission to use new trenches that would increase the site's storage capacity.
But Mr. Witherspoon said legislators cannot base their decision on what-ifs.
Opponents of the bill also argued that lawmakers should honor the Atlantic Compact their predecessors signed and that it's time for South Carolina to stop being the country's dumping ground.
"South Carolina in posterity is going to look back on the decision that was made here today ... and they're going to judge us, and they're going to say whether we were leaders trying to be popular or leaders trying to do the right thing,'" said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens.
Coming on the 28th anniversary of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, Wednesday's vote was "significant and historic," said Ann Timberland, the executive director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina.
Proponents argued that there is no reason to shut down a site that provides jobs, has an outstanding safety record and provides millions of dollars annually to the county and the state, most of which is used for educational programs.
Barnwell County Councilman Keith Sloan said he was "very shocked" by Wednesday's outcome. But he attributes the lopsided vote to a "domino effect" of lawmakers who supported the measure realizing it was going to fail and not wanting to be on record as voting for such a controversial issue.
"I classify it as a lack of principle, a lack of courage," Mr. Sloan said.
If South Carolina sticks to the Atlantic Compact as written, Barnwell County stands to lose between $1.5 million and $1.6 million in annual general revenue funds, or about 16 percent of the county's operating budget, Mr. Sloan said.
He said the county will have to start planning immediately for that loss.
The site isn't scheduled to close to the nation for 15 months, and because this is the first year of a two-year session, there's time for the issue to come up again.
But, said Mr. Witherspoon, "I think I've done my due on this bill. I don't think it'll come up next year. I think it's a dead issue for now."
Supporters, though, "will regroup," predicts Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, who has fought the bill.
"We're evaluating everything," said Tim Dangerfield, EnergySolutions' senior vice president for South Carolina operations.
Mr. Sloan said the county won't continue fighting the issue unless the area's elected officials - Rep. Lonnie Hosey, D-Barnwell, and Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg - want to proceed.
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, said that, if the proposal came to the Senate, it's unlikely the bill would make it out of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, where he is chairman.
Otherwise, senators have pledged to filibuster the bill to death on the floor.
He said senators have told him they're not interested in pursuing the issue.
"Ever," he said.
Reach Kirsten Singleton at (803) 414-6611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Barnwell nuclear site remains on schedule to close its doors to waste from all but three states beginning July 1, 2008.