Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Supremes side with N.C. on nuke wastes

It's hard to believe now, but just two decades ago, a lot of smart folks thought it would be a great idea for states to band together in regional compacts to build and operate multi-state centers where low-level nuclear wastes could be safely stored and monitored. Some still do. Seven Southeastern states including North Carolina agreed to pick a site, pay for construction of a new storage facility to replace an aging facility in Barnwell, S.C. and have a place to manage low-level wastes. The agreement started fraying when some states stopped paying their share of the costs and when North Carolina was picked for the first site. Then-Gov. Jim Martin backed Rep. Joe Mavretic's idea to put the waste site -- many called it a dump -- in Edgecombe County near the little town of Conetoe.

The site was first projected to cost around $20 million, but by the mid-1990s the cost had escalated to a projected $140 million. In all North Carolina spent about $37 million on the project, nearly one-third the total amount spent by the compact, before legislators decided they were holding the short end of a radioactive stick. Then-Rep. George Miller, D-Durham, who had sponsored the legislation committing North Carolina to the compact, also sponsored the bill withdrawing the state from the group. Other states sued in a long-running dispute about who did what to whom, and at what cost. They wanted money from this state.

Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court came down on North Carolina's side that it didn't owe its one-time partners any money for withdrawing from the compact. It was a big victory for the state because, among other things, it means the state doesn't owe more money it doesn't have. Here's a link to the story.

But North Carolinians have realized for a while it was probably a good thing the waste site wasn’t put in Edgecombe County. They realized that after Hurricane Floyd in 1999, when much of the county was heavily deluged and Conetoe was cut off from land by floodwaters, as my colleague Anna Griffin reported on Oct. 7 that year.

“…folks in the Conetoe area shudder even more when they talk about what might have been, had they not succeeded in persuading local leaders - through brute grass-roots political pressure - to rescind their 1988 offer to host the controversial dump.

"Earlier this year, state officials ultimately decided to ditch the dump altogether.

"'Have I thought about it? Heck, yes," said Conetoe farmer Bert Peeler. "I thought about it a lot those first few days, when I had dead chickens and slicks of oil and who knows what else floating by my front door."

State low-level radioactive waste experts say the dump they planned to build would have been safe from a flood - or at least as safe as such facilities can be.

"'These aren't like sewage treatment plants or water treatment plants, which are generally designed against a 100-year flood," said Mel Fry, director of the state's Division of Radiation Protection. "Low-level waste facilities are designed to guard against things we can't even predict over the life of the facility. You can't design anything to zero risk, but you can design it so any release involves as little material as possible.'"

Still, some residents were skeptical of claims that the waste site would have been protected from flooding, Griffin reported.

“We’ve got hog waste and human waste and gasoline and dead birds,” said Ben Hardy, who owns a gas station outside Conetoe, “But our water doesn’t glow in the dark.”

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