Landfills, Nuclear and Toxic Waste

Chem Nuclear Landfill

The Chem Nuclear landfill, a low level radioactive waste landfill near Barnwell, has a convoluted history and is a symbol of South Carolina’s status as the nation’s dumping ground.
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Opened in 1971, this landfill is one of three low-level radioactive waste landfills in the country. It was limited to regional use and slated for closure in 1992, but the closure deadline was extended twice by former Governor Carroll Campbell, and then former Governor David Beasley scrapped the planned closure and opened the facility to the entire nation.

Under a law promoted by former Governor Jim Hodges, it is now limited to waste from the Atlantic Compact states of New Jersey and Connecticut, and a limited amount from other states.

The Long Legal Saga

The case first went to trial in 2005 in the Administrative Law Court and the ALC ruled that although the landfill is leaking radioactive materials to groundwaters and the Savannah River, the permit complies with the regulations requiring “isolation of wastes from the biosphere inhabited by man and his food chains.” The ALC Judge's order recognized that leaking radiation that has contaminated groundwater and a nearby stream presents a "monumental hazardous condition that... cannot be overlooked." Yet the facility was still granted the renewal license.

With that sort of disconnect between recognizing the danger and still approving the renewal license- SCELP did not hesitate to appeal to the SC Court of Appeals. Our appeal challenged the operating conditions of the permit. The landfill operates under an old design that does not incorporate all appropriate modern safeguards to protect the environment and human health from radiation. If the landfill is to continue operating, we believed it needed to employ the safest practical safeguards.

The appeal was heard in October, 2009 and we won, with the court ordering that the ALC apply the regulations and make legal conclusions based on the court’s factual findings. Chem Nuclear has filed a petition seeking review of the decision in the SC Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court denied Chem Nuclear's petition and the case was been remanded to the ALC. Judge Trip Anderson issued an Order ruling that the landfill met the regulatory requirements. We filed our second appeal in the Court of Appeals and submitted our legal briefs in the spring of 2013. The Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on February 5, 2014.

On July 30, 2014, the Court of Appeals ruled in our favor, concluding that Chem Nuclear's disposal practices were insufficient to minimize contact between water and waste and required Chem Nuclear and DHEC to develop a plan to address the deficiencies. Chem Nuclear and DHEC both asked the Court to reconsider its ruling in August of 2014.

On August 12, 2015, the Court of Appeals again ruled in our favor finding that Chem Nuclear was not properly disposing of hazardous waste at its facility. Notably, the Court agreed that Chem Nuclear had not incorporated any design features that would minimize the migration of rainwater onto and out of its disposal vaults and trenches. Instead, those disposal units are specifically designed to allow the migration of water into and out of them.

After our success in the Court of Appeals, Chem Nuclear filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court, which was granted on October 27, 2017. We submitted our briefs in the Supreme Court on January 29, 2018 and the hearing was held on April 18. We are waiting for a decision.

Case Update

On March 27, 2019, after a 14-year legal battle, the S.C. Supreme Court sided with SCELP and the Sierra Club's efforts to seek safety measures at the site. The Supreme Court agreed with SCELP's appeal of DHEC's license that authorized Chem Nuclear's low-level radioactive waste disposal facility. In short, the court ruled that the license failed to comply with the regulatory provisions designed to minimize contact between waste and water.

"For too long, South Carolina has accepted low-level radioactive waste for permanent burial in our soils using a seriously flawed design that allows rainwater to come into contact with that waste, be driven into the groundwater, and appear in our surface waters," SCELP Executive Director Amy Armstrong stated. "Thankfully, the Supreme Court acknowledged those serious flaws and has sent the license back to DHEC to fix them."

"For almost 20 years, Sierra Club has teamed up with SCELP to fight unsafe nuclear waste dumping in South Carolina. We call on Chem Nuclear and SCDHEC to finally end disposal practices which continue to contaminate our State's ground and surface waters," said Bob Guild, Sierra Club Attorney and Conservation Chair.

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