Barnwell leaks worse than feared

The State | 08/19/2007 | Barnwell leaks worse than feared

Radioactive tritium in groundwater exceeds EPA safe-drinking levels
A look at why health regulators are concerned about tritium in drinking water.

What is it?

Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen. It is produced naturally in the upper atmosphere, when cosmic rays strike nitrogen molecules in the air. Used in nuclear weapons, tritium also is produced as a byproduct in reactors producing electricity and in special production reactors.

How does it get into the body?

Tritium primarily enters the body when people swallow tritiated water. People also may inhale tritium as a gas in the air and absorb it through their skin.

Can tritium affect my health?

Although tritium is less dangerous than many radioactive materials, such as plutonium, it is believed to cause an increased risk of cancer when people are exposed to it on a regular basis. Other health effects are the subject of scientific debate, but some scientists have concluded it can cause birth defects.

Are there other concerns?

Yes. In water, tritium is one of the most rapidly moving radioactive materials. Other slower moving pollutants can follow tritium into groundwater if landfills are leaking.

SOURCES: S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

SNELLING — Higher-than-expected amounts of a radioactive material are tainting the groundwater at a nuclear waste dump long considered safe by state regulators.

Previously sealed records, obtained by The State newspaper, show groundwater beneath the state-owned landfill in Barnwell County has tritium levels exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard for safe drinking water — in some cases by hundreds of times.

Tritium levels beneath the 36-year-old landfill operated by Chem-Nuclear rival those on parts of the Savannah River Site, records show. SRS is a nearby atomic weapons complex with a well-documented history of groundwater pollution.

Although tritium is not as toxic as many other radioactive materials, federal regulators say exposure to tritium can increase a person’s chances of cancer. California officials were concerned enough last year that they took steps to reduce tritium exposure in drinking water.

Tritium also can foreshadow the flow of more toxic contaminants that don’t move as quickly in groundwater. Plutonium and uranium are among the more poisonous radioactive materials detected in the Barnwell County landfill.

Leaks of radioactivity have been found before at the Barnwell County site. But the recently released records provide new details about the extent of pollution and how serious it is. They show the average levels of contamination in monitoring wells and the location of the wells.

The trail of polluted groundwater extends beyond the landfill for about a half-mile toward a small community.

“This is absolutely new information,” said Bob Guild, a Columbia lawyer who has challenged Chem-Nuclear’s permit to operate in court. “The striking thing is that some of the SRS tritium readings are lower than the Chem-Nuclear readings.”

S.C. health regulators said the tritium levels should not be a surprise because low-level nuclear waste contains the material.

They said no one lives in the path of the radioactive pollution from the landfill. Nor are area residents drinking from wells tainted by the material, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Several families living south of the landfill said they’d like the state to test their drinking water to make sure.

“They have not checked either of my wells,” said Bill Steed, who has lived about a mile south of the landfill for 30 years.

Chem-Nuclear is willing to test the wells of anyone concerned about tritium in their drinking water, said Jim Latham, a Chem-Nuclear vice president. The Department of Health and Environmental Control also plans to take a closer look at the wells in the area, agency regulator Richard Haynes said Friday.

Latham said he doubts contamination would show up because the tritium pollution hits a creek and disperses before it can reach private wells below the stream.

However, on one occasion in 2002, elevated levels of tritium were found below the creek, state records show.

Chem-Nuclear, a division of Energy Solutions Inc., lobbied unsuccessfully last spring to keep the landfill from closing to most of the nation in 2008. The company is expected back at the Legislature in January to make its case again.


Walter Grubbs and his neighbors were surprised to see the levels of tritium outlined on the state’s 2006 map of radioactivity at the landfill.

Grubbs, a factory worker with three daughters, wants to know why state regulators never told him about the tritium — and whether radioactive waste threatens his family’s water. Grubbs relies on a private well.

“It concerns me if I’m drinking this stuff and it’s doing harm to me somewhere down the road,” Grubbs said. “You’d think the government would be keeping on top of all that. That’s what they get paid to do.”

Grubbs, 35, grew up on the land south of the landfill. His father lives across a pasture from the small house that Grubbs shares with his daughters. He said he always thought the waste dump was safe because it contained low-level nuclear waste.

Low-level nuclear garbage, generally considered less toxic than other classes of atomic waste, is buried at the site. Much of the refuse contains materials slightly contaminated by radiation, such as hospital clothing.

But the landfill also includes more radioactive nuclear reactor parts with contamination that could take thousands of years to break down.

Some low-level waste goes into unlined trenches that are left open and exposed to rain, until the holes fill up with the radioactive garbage.

Since opening in 1971, the Barnwell County landfill has accepted about 28 million cubic feet of the nation’s low-level nuclear waste.

Today, about a dozen of the more than 50 tritium-polluted monitoring wells lie between the burial site and Grubbs’ community, according to a 2006 contamination map released recently by DHEC.

Tritium has been found seeping into Mary’s Branch, a creek about a half mile south of the landfill. Mary’s Branch drains to a tributary of the Savannah River, about 12 miles away. The Savannah River is a drinking water source for thousands of Georgia and S.C. residents, including those living in the Hilton Head Island area.

A 2004 contamination map, released recently by state regulators, also shows groundwater contamination above the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking water standard. It shows about 30 percent of the monitoring wells exceed that tritium standard.

Stoney Stewart, 58, was shocked to learn about the tritium levels beneath the Chem-Nuclear landfill.

“The public needs to know,” said Stewart, whose wife’s family has owned land in the area for decades. “It’s like they’ve been hiding something.”

Stewart, who is Steed’s son-in-law, lives with his wife, Brenda, and 3-year-old daughter below the landfill. Brenda Stewart said DHEC had not tested their well for tritium.


State regulators and Chem-Nuclear say they have nothing to hide and there’s little reason for public concern.

The company has acknowledged a leak occurred. The leak has been traced to the late 1970s, when the company says its disposal practices were not as advanced as today.

“Our door has always been open to anybody who may be interested or who has questions about what we do,” Latham said.

State records show the state health agency doesn’t think anyone lives in the path of the polluted groundwater flow, even though Grubbs and his relatives live south of the site. DHEC says the flow of groundwater contamination is to the southwest.

“Exposure … has been negligible because there are no consumers of groundwater or surface water downgradient of the Barnwell facility,” a February 2007 state environmental report said.

Haynes, a waste regulator at DHEC, said the amounts of tritium shown on the 2006 contamination map generally are consistent with recent readings in groundwater beneath the landfill. The 2006 map is being updated this fall, he said. Monitoring records for this year show tritium contamination continues to exceed federal safe drinking water standards beneath the site.

For years, Chem-Nuclear persuaded the state not to release some details of the contamination, saying it was “proprietary.’’

Proprietary information is typically trade secrets that could be used by a rival company. Chem-Nuclear runs the only low-level atomic waste site of its kind in the country.

After The State newspaper filed a Freedom of Information Act request earlier this year, the company and the state environmental agency agreed to release maps showing the location of the contamination and the number of polluted wells. The company also released reports on pollution cleanups, groundwater monitoring and surface water contamination, including a 2001 report about tritium-tinged Mary’s Branch.

“We re-examined why this was proprietary and decided that the data could and should be released,” Latham said.

The 2006 map — which provides the location and tritium levels of monitoring wells at the landfill — shows amounts of tritium that were unknown to Guild and environmental lawyer Jimmy Chandler of Pawleys Island.

“Those numbers are higher than any I’ve seen,” said Chandler, who is working with Guild on the court case challenging Chem-Nuclear’s permit.


Last year’s map detailing the spread — or plume — of radioactivity from the Barnwell site shows about a third of 98 monitoring wells contained levels of tritium above the Environmental Protection Agency standard of 20,000 pico curies per liter of water. A pico curie measures the level of radioactivity in water. All told, more than 50 wells showed some level of tritium contamination.

The findings also show:

• Four wells contained average tritium concentrations of at least 10 million pico curies per liter.

• Fifteen wells contained average tritium concentrations of at least 1 million pico curies per liter. In comparison, at least three parts of the nearby Savannah River Site registered levels below 1 million pico curies per liter, a 2005 federal report says.

• Fourteen wells contained average tritium concentrations of at least 100,000 pico curies per liter.

• Elevated levels of tritium have been found in about a dozen wells outside the landfill’s boundary on land Chem-Nuclear has acquired south of the site.

In addition to tritium, a February 2003 report for the state environmental agency said some monitoring wells with elevated tritium levels also contained “detectable quantities of carbon 14” as well as chemicals such as chloroform. Like other radioactive materials, carbon 14 can increase a person’s risk of cancer. High levels of chloroform can cause liver and kidney damage and are suspected of causing cancer.

“These results indicate tritium is an excellent indicator for other contaminants,” the report said.

The report also identified trace amounts of uranium 238 and polonium 210. Polonium 210 was linked last year to the fatal poisoning of a Russian spy. The report, however, said it appears the polonium level was naturally occurring.


Latham said his company has followed federal requirements to contain tritium at the landfill.

Tritium drops to federally acceptable levels by the time it reaches a monitoring point on Mary’s Branch, Latham said.

In an attempt to reduce tritium levels, the company has in recent years begun sealing closed landfill trenches in a way that prevents rainwater from getting into the burial pits. The company is using a synthetic liner above some of the burial trenches to repel rainwater that could otherwise trickle through the nuclear garbage and into groundwater.

Latham said his company is also complying with federal standards for water pollution. Although tritium in many wells exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency standard, Chem-Nuclear is bound by a looser state standard for tritium at Mary’s Branch.

That standard equates to a safe tritium level of about 500,000 pico curies per liter of drinking water; the Environmental Protection Agency standard is 20,000 pico curies of tritium per liter of drinking water.

Steed, 64, said he’s not persuaded the site is a benign neighbor.

Since 1978, he has lived south of the landfill. He shares a modest home with his wife, Lucy, their two dogs and a pet squirrel.

Steed remembers community protests in the early 1970s over digging the landfill in Barnwell County.

Today, he’s finding it hard to ignore the tritium levels.

“It’s got to be a concern,” Steed said. “I know that water runs downhill.”

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.


Chem-Nuclear operates a 235-acre landfill used by the nation to dispose of low-level nuclear waste. The landfill has been a source of discussion and debate among state leaders since it opened.

1971 — Chem Nuclear opens low-level waste landfill near the town of Snelling, between Barnwell and the Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex.

1978 — A monitoring well detects tritium leaking from the site.

1982 — South Carolina forms a compact with other Southern states to close the Barnwell County landfill to radioactive waste from outside the region by 1986. A replacement landfill is to be opened in North Carolina.

1986 — Federal officials extend the closing date for the Barnwell County landfill to 1992 while the N.C. site is planned.

1991 — Tritium contamination in groundwater is first discovered off the landfill site.

1992 — South Carolina officials agree to keep the landfill open through June 1994.

1995 — North Carolina abandons plans for its landfill. Gov. David Beasley and state lawmakers agree to keep the Barnwell County landfill open to the nation. That allows nuclear waste generators from every state to use the landfill, rather than just those in the Southeast.

1999 — Tritium spills from the landfill and contaminates St. Paul Church property next door. Cleanup eventually declared successful.

2000 — Gov. Jim Hodges signs legislation to close the landfill to the nation. Only South Carolina, New Jersey and Connecticut can use the landfill after mid-2008, according to the agreement.

2006 — Chem-Nuclear acquired by Energy Solutions Inc. of Utah.

2007 — Legislators rebuff Chem-Nuclear attempts to keep the landfill open to the nation through 2023.

SOURCES: Atlantic Compact Commission; S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

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