The agency that runs South Carolina’s prison system is asking for an additional $6 million in this year’s budget after an unsafe amount of radium was found in the water supply of a Sumter County facility.
Radium is a radioactive element that exists in the soil of the Piedmont and Sandhills regions. While naturally occurring, it can dissolve in groundwater and accumulate in unsafe levels in some parts of South Carolina. While small doses of radium are not harmful, exposure over a long period of time increases a person’s cancer risk.
“It would take a large amount to cause a problem for humans, but over time it could,” South Carolina Department of Corrections spokesman Clark Newsom said.
The state’s public health agency, the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), found rising radium levels at a Wateree River Correctional Institution well in 2008. Since the amount was considered unsafe under the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act, the Corrections Department faced a $5,000 per day fine. However, the two agencies signed a consent order in December 2008 where prison officials agreed to find a solution without paying the fine.
Newsom said officials decided to switch over to a public water system rather than fix the contaminated on-site wells.
The Corrections Department has requested $6 million to cover the costs of installing new pipes and infrastructure as it joins the private High Hills Rural Water Company system. Budget cutbacks delayed the transfer for more than three years, but lawmakers have indicated they plan to include the project in the FY 2013 budget.
Wateree River Correctional is located near the town of Rembert. Nearly 1,200 inmates and employees rely on its water supply.