South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Funds drying up to check for toxic leaks near Lake Marion
January 8th, 2014

COLUMBIA, SC — The state is running out of money to prevent leaks from a closed toxic waste landfill near Lake Marion and taxpayers are almost certain to make up a chunk of the shortfall – instead of a company that once ran the dump in rural Sumter County.

That company, Safety Kleen, filed for bankruptcy in 2000 and eventually left South Carolina after negotiating a more than $150 million settlement to pay for long-term monitoring and cleanup of the 279-acre dump southeast of Columbia.

But as predicted by many at the time, the settlement is proving inadequate, state environmental officials said Wednesday. South Carolina may need $100 million more to manage the site and monitor for signs of pollution during the next century, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

That won’t be known for sure until the state hires consultants to assess the overall costs to manage the landfill in coming decades, but DHEC director Catherine Templeton said she expects the public to bear at least some of the expenses.

“There will be some portion of it that will fall on the liability of the state,’’ Templeton said, noting that such a decision would be up to the Legislature and Congress.

Already this week, efforts were under way to make sure the site is adequately funded. State Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said he’ll introduce a budget request to dedicate money each year for safe operation of the site.

Wednesday’s revelation by DHEC verifies concern that South Carolina went easy on Safety Kleen when the state should have sought more funding decades ago to prevent leaks or finance cleanups at the toxic waste dump, said former state Sen. Phil Leventis, one of the landfill’s most ardent critics.

“You get back to the point that there was never enough money because (the state) didn’t do what it needed to do years ago,’’ said Leventis, who had pushed for a cash trust fund to pay for a landfill cleanup. State regulators at first required the trust fund, but caved to political pressure.

Templeton said the landfill is not leaking, but she also said the state needs more money to make sure that leaks don’t happen in the future.

“What is not fine is the funding,’’ Templeton told reporters. “Nobody is surprised to hear that.’’

Money for monitoring and maintaining the site is important so regulators can detect leaks that could spread to Lake Marion, a drinking water source, a hot spot for fishing and one of the most popular recreational lakes in South Carolina. At about the time it closed, the landfill had taken in about 5.6 million tons of toxic garbage.

The bankruptcy settlement, agreed to by DHEC late in 2002, was considered the best the agency could do at the time, Templeton said, echoing past statements by agency officials. It limited future liability by Safety Kleen.

The settlement set aside more than $150 million for maintenance, monitoring and other operating costs. The bulk of the commitment by Safety Kleen, formerly Laidlaw Environmental Services, was an annuity the company bought that pays about $1 million annually to fund yearly operations, DHEC officials said. But the state has spent, on average, some $4 million more than that each year to maintain the hazardous waste dump, Templeton said.

The shortfall has caused landfill managers to raid another fund to help pay the operating costs. The second account has dropped to about $7 million from $36 million, Templeton said. Templeton said she expects that fund to run out of money in the next two to three years.

Major costs at the landfill, in addition to normal operational expenses, include establishment of a system to evaporate toxic water that forms in the dump.

To attack the funding problem, DHEC first wants the site evaluated. The department has called for bids from national environmental companies to assess what it will cost to oversee the landfill and keep it sealed for decades to come. The agency also will develop a data base of companies and governments that sent waste to the landfill.

Much of the toxic material came from the state and federal governments, whose shipments included Superfund cleanup waste, she said. Government agencies could be billed for cleaning up the mess, Templeton said. Private companies also could be billed for material they sent there, she said.

Details were released to the media Wednesday afternoon by Templeton., who also met with about 25 state leaders, environmentalists and others to brief them on the problem and her plan to fix it. Those included Leventis and Dana Beach, who heads the S.C. Coastal Conservation League.

Templeton, who became DHEC director two years ago, also met with officials in the offices of U.S. Reps. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., and Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C, telling federal officials that $100 million might not be enough.

Beach said he appreciated Templeton’s effort to seek funds to monitor and manage the site.

“It took a lot of guts to do this,’’ Beach said. “If you look at the path people follow in this state, the one we most often follow is the easy way out.’’

The landfill was established more than 35 years ago ago from an old cat litter mine. It is located several football fields away from Lake Marion. The dump once took toxic waste from across the Southeast before closing in 2000 after a court fight.

Because of concerns the landfill one day could leak, DHEC at one point in the 1990s required Laidlaw to establish a $133 million cash trust fund to cover such costs. But the agency later changed its mind under pressure from legislators and others who were supporters of Laidlaw Environmental, once one of the most powerful businesses in South Carolina. Some consultants, however, said catastrophic cleanup costs could top $1 billion. Eventually, Safety Kleen declared bankruptcy and moved to Texas.

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