South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

SC’s Highest Court Forces Changes at Radioactive Barnwell Landfill
Posted: March 27, 2019

The South Carolina Supreme Court hands environmentalists a victory in long-running Chem Nuclear landfill case

For immediate release

For more info: Amy E. Armstrong, S.C. Environmental Law Project, (843)-527-0078

MARCH 27, 2019 — After a 14-year legal battle, the S.C. Supreme Court has sided with the South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP) and the Sierra Club, which sought safety measures at the leaking 48-year-old nuclear waste landfill in Barnwell County.

In today’s opinion, the state’s top court agreed with SCELP’s appeal of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s (DHEC) 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.

The landfill has operated since the early 1970s as one of the nation’s largest dumping grounds for low level radioactive wastes. Due to poor design, rain falling onto disposal units at the site has caused radioactive materials to leak into groundwater, which drives a tritium plume into a nearby creek that flows to the Savannah River. The site’s failure to minimize water falling onto and flowing out of disposal units has gone unaddressed since we first challenged the license in 2004.

Since that time, we had a trial in the Administrative Law Court (ALC) and have been to the Court of Appeals twice, prevailing each time in reversing erroneous ALC decisions. Now, the Supreme Court has weighed in and agreed that the license fails to meet technical regulatory requirements.

Specifically, the Supreme Court upheld the findings that (1) the concrete disposal vaults are not sealed against water intrusion and have holes in the floors to permit water to drain from the vaults into the trenches; (2) the holes in the vaults have allowed water to rise up into the vault; (3) the disposal trenches into which the vaults are placed are designed to allow water to infiltrate the soil below the trenches; (4) none of the trenches have an impermeable liner or leachate collection system; (5) the trenches are uncovered, allowing rainwater to collect in the open trenches; (6) water the comes into contact with the disposed waste eventually percolates into the soil, driving groundwater that carries radioactive material like tritium; (7) radioactive tritium has migrated in a plume underneath the site and been detected in the closest surface waters at Mary's Branch, a tributary of the Savannah River.

Among its conclusions, the Supreme Court said that Chem Nuclear had not designed its disposal units "to minimize the migration of water onto the disposal units" nor "to minimize the migration of water or waste contaminated water out of the disposal units."

The Supreme Court remanded the license to DHEC to "take all admissible evidence into account when addressing the question of compliance" with water minimization requirements.

"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.

The Court’s full opinion and background on the Chem-Nuclear case can be found here.