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Photo of Bob King, EQC Deputy CommissionerDHEC responds to news coverage of tritium contamination at the Barnwell low-level nuclear waste disposal facility

There’s a lot of factual information that has been glossed over or forgotten in recent reporting by Columbia’s State newspaper of tritium contamination at Chem Nuclear’s low level nuclear waste facility in Barnwell County. Allow me to provide some context to set the record straight.

This site began permitted operations before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency existed. It was permitted under authority of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. South Carolina is authorized by the NRC as an Agreement State to administer their Radioactive Waste Program, which includes licensing and regulatory authority of radioactive materials. The Barnwell site is held to the same standards as other facilities that operate under NRC licenses, such as nuclear power plants. As an Agreement State, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control acts for the NRC. The NRC reviews our programs to ensure that public health and safety is protected from the potential hazards associated with the use of radioactive materials and that our state’s program is compatible with the NRC. In the NRC’s most recent review completed in July, their preliminary report gave our state’s program in DHEC the highest rating for all performance indicators.

The first evidence of tritium contamination at the Barnwell property occurred in the on-site sumps in the early 1970’s. Tritium was first detected in on-site groundwater monitoring wells in 1978. This has been widely reported and documented.

Staff with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control prepared reports in 1995, 2000, and 2006 on the tritium migration for the Legislature and the public to respond to questions about this issue. 1995 was the original closure date for Barnwell, and was the focus of legislative action. In 2000, legislation was passed to form the Atlantic Compact Commission as well as the license renewal process for the Barnwell facility. As a result of a report issued by the Governor’s Nuclear Task Force recommending that South Carolina join the Atlantic Compact, DHEC staff attended at least two committee hearings during the 2000 legislative debate. During those hearings, there was a discussion about the tritium release and groundwater contamination there.

In October 2000 DHEC convened an independent panel of experts, including a representative from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to review and evaluate the documents submitted by the Chem-Nuclear staff as part of its application for the renewal of its license. Their finding was that the facility was in compliance with the applicable regulations and that DHEC was administering its oversight properly.

The transcript from a December 2003 public hearing on the facility’s license renewal reflects a discussion of the groundwater contamination and tritium release issues. Following the hearing, DHEC staff talked extensively with The State’s Sammy Fretwell, at which time he specifically asked about the tritium issue. In February 2004 the Sierra Club sent a letter regarding the license renewal process that included the groundwater issue.

The facility’s license, renewed in 2004, was appealed. The tritium contamination was a dominant issue raised by the Sierra Club, represented by attorneys Bob Guild and Jimmy Chandler. During the hearing process, groundwater maps and detailed data were presented. This is why I’m skeptical of the comments attributed to Mr. Guild and Mr. Chandler in The State’s recent stories that the release of a map showing monitoring well locations provided important information of which they were not aware. The data from that map has long been known and available to them and the public. The only “new” information is that the map shows where the wells are located and graphically represents the data ranges for each.

In March of this year when the Legislature was considering legislation to amend the Atlantic Compact statute, DHEC presented written testimony to the House Agriculture Subcommittee about the groundwater contamination issue. We have the audio recordings of the legislative subcommittee hearing in which there was much discussion about tritium contamination and questioning by members who were later quoted by The State in the Aug. 25 story, “Panel lacked pollution data.” Whoever wrote that headline was just plain wrong. Had The State listened to the tapes, they would have heard everything that was asked and answered by the DHEC staff.

Let me make a few more quick points. Weekly inspections are performed at the site to evaluate conditions. DHEC has an on-site inspector who inspects transportation shipments, conducts sampling and unannounced license inspections. DHEC reviews quarterly and annual groundwater monitoring data from a series of nearly 200 monitoring wells in and around the site where the tritium levels have been found.

South Carolina uses the NRC regulations which sets the tritium standard at 25 millirem per year which equates to 500,000 picocuries per liter of water. The standard is based on someone drinking two liters of water every day for a year. The average American receives 360 millirem each year from natural and other sources. No offsite monitoring locations have been close to or exceeded the NRC standard. The highest measurement at the compliance point near Mary’s Branch Creek was 114,000 picocuries and has dropped to 102,000 picocuries earlier this year. A tritium level of 100,000 picocuries per liter equates to an exposure of five millirem per year. Want a comparison? You’ll get a dose of 10 millirem from a typical chest x-ray. Live in a brick house, that’s worth six millirem. A flight across this country will give you three millirem. Work or live around fluorescent light bulbs or use a cell phone, those are worth several millirem each.

The State has made much about the EPA’s 20,000 picocuries per liter drinking water standard. There are two big problems with the use of those numbers. First, there is absolutely no requirement that the state of South Carolina use the EPA standard rather than the NRC’s standard and secondly, no one is drinking water from any of the monitoring wells where the elevated tritium levels have been long documented.

Chem Nuclear, the operator of the Barnwell facility, has the responsibility and must address the contamination issues. They will not be allowed to simply walk away once the doors close. Our oversight and the state’s involvement with Chem Nuclear at the facility will continue for 100 year after Barnwell closes.

The State’s reporting on this “issue” has been wrong, misleading and irresponsible. To insinuate that DHEC has been secretive or doesn’t care about the environment or people of Barnwell County flies in the face of long established principles of responsible journalism that newspaper has deliberately chosen to ignore.


Robert W. King, Jr., is deputy commissioner for Environmental Quality Control with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. He has 35 years of service with the agency and is a licensed Professional Engineer.