Plan's defeat shakes Barnwell

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A defeated plan to extend the life of a low-level nuclear waste disposal site in Barnwell County could result in job losses and cuts to local government services and school funding.

Barnwell County officials said they were shocked by a state House committee's 16-0 vote Wednesday to close the nuclear waste site to all but three states - Connecticut, New Jersey and South Carolina - beginning July 1, 2008.

The proposal would have allowed the site to accept nuclear waste from other states until 2023.

"Disappointment doesn't begin to describe what we felt," said Marty Martin, the Barnwell County Economic Development Commission executive director.

"This is a community - a county, an area of the state - that has lost approximately 1,000 jobs over the past two years," Mr. Martin said.

At 11 to 12 percent, Barnwell County's unemployment rate is the second-highest in the state, Mr. Martin said.

County officials said Chem-Nuclear Systems, LLC, which has run the site for 36 years, could lose 25 to 30 employees.

"To Barnwell County, 30 jobs, particularly at the level they pay, is significant," said Keith Sloan, the Barnwell County Council chairman.

He said the average annual salary at the company is $50,000.

Mr. Sloan also said a scaled-back operation could leave the county with losses of $1.5 million to $1.6 million in annual general revenue funds, or about 16 percent of the county's operating budget. He said the school district could lose about $1 million in revenues.

However, the council chairman said the county finance committee already is looking at alternatives to offset the potential revenue losses. He said a property tax increase would be the last resort.

"I believe that we just added 10 mills to our budget this year. I'm not inclined to see another tax increase," Mr. Sloan said.

He also said the operational reduction would have little effect on the county from an economic development standpoint.

Danny Black, a Barnwell County resident and a former county council member, said the county has "gone through this battle every few years" with the state.

Calling Chem-Nuclear a good corporate neighbor, he said its parent company, EnergySolutions, "has been bashed" unfairly by people outside the county.

"I am sick and tired of hearing legislative people and conservationists and propagandists referring to us as the Barnwell dump," Mr. Black said.

Mr. Sloan said the county would pursue reasonable compensation from the state for accepting the risk of nuclear waste disposal. He also said county officials would continue to work with the state to secure funding for infrastructure improvements and for educational training for its workforce.

"We're still a county. We're a viable county, and we'll do what we have to do to cope with the situation," Mr. Sloan said. "We ain't going away."

Reach Betsy Gilliland at (803) 648-1395, ext. 113, or betsy.gilliland@augustachronicle.com.

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