A South Carolina official is using a 17-year-old contract with the federal government to take it to task, forcing it to either pay a $154 million fine or back to the negotiating table as funding has dwindled for cleanup of nuclear-bombing making waste at the Savannah River Site near Aiken.
S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control Executive Director Catherine Templeton said she will force the Department of Energy’s hand now that they allegedly have stiffed the site, apparently giving money to another site in Washington state — leaving South Carolina with massive amounts of nuclear waste in aging containers sitting in groundwater — and not come to the state with any alternatives. Templeton called the sitting waste “the largest environmental threat in the state.”
The move rests on the federal government’s agreement with the state in 1996, when it agreed to fund cleanup of the site and to penalties if it did not meet funding or timeline constraints. The project is decades behind schedule. Latest estimates say cleanup will not be complete until the middle of this century.
The state has declined to penalize the federal government in previous years when budgets have been tight or deadlines missed, but this time it’s different, according to Templeton.
“In the past it’s been very cooperative (between the state and federal governments). Everyone has sat down and said OK we’re having a problem … because we’re having this problem … it’s going to put it behind a year. That is life. And you allow that as long as everybody is making their best efforts to take care of the problem. This is the first time, that I’m aware of, where the Department of Energy has simply said, ‘We’re not going to fund it and so sorry,’ and turn their back. I’m very hopeful that there will be a reconsideration.”
Templeton said she’s afraid the federal government isn’t talking with the state because they have no alternative, solution or future plan.
In a New York Times article last week, the Savannah River Site-Department of Energy manager for waste disposal said the decision was budgetary. As of Wednesday morning, no Department of Energy official has responded yet to South Carolina Radio Network’s requests for comment.
Templeton said the money slated for the Savannah River Site went to Hanford nuclear reservation near Richland, Wash. The claim that it’s a budgetary decision doesn’t sit well with Templeton.
“The only escape clause is if we agree to let them go, which we will not do, or if there is no money … this isn’t a situation where the federal government has failed to fund properly. It’s a situation where the Department of Energy has decided to budget different and disparately. They have the money and they’re putting it somewhere else, and taking away more from SRS than any other facility in the country,” she said. “The Department of Energy has decided to take money away from SRS who is doing an incredibly good job of cleanup … and give it to a facility across the nation that has historically under-performed, failed to clean up and been litigious, and as a result South Carolina will have bigger environmental issues faster because we will have to stop what we’re doing.”
Templeton likened the South Carolina plant to Japan’s ailing nuclear plant Fukushima, which was devastated by natural disasters and has wreaked environmental havoc. She said the analogy might sound over the top, and there is no leaking waste like the Fukushima plant, but added that the site’s aging containment structures won’t last decades. She described the tanks as”slowly cracking and leaking, and they sit in the water.”
“If not managed properly … we’re going to going to have the same kind of situation (as Fukushima) … You contaminate groundwater, you end up with problems with Savannah river and it goes into the harbor,” Templeton said. “(They need) to tell us how they are going to protect the state of South Carolina from the largest environmental threat in the state.”
Templeton said she’s working with the state’s leaders, including U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and Gov. Nikki Haley in her fight.