COLUMBIA - The director of South Carolina's environmental control agency has warned the U.S. Energy Department that federal budget reductions to the Savannah River Site near Aiken could result in hundreds of millions of dollars in fines.
In a letter obtained Thursday by The Associated Press, Director Catherine Templeton told Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz the state will fully enforce the agencies' agreements on more than 30 milestones for cleaning up high-level radioactive liquid waste stored in degrading, underground tanks.
That includes fines that will top $154 million if a waste processing facility doesn't open in October 2015. The state Department of Health and Environmental Control will not waive daily fines of $105,000 that have accrued since 2011, when the agency granted an extension. Those fines will continue until opening day. Another extension won't be given, Templeton said.
"Let me be abundantly clear. South Carolinians place an extraordinary amount of trust in our agency to be the state's eyes and ears at SRS to ensure DOE keeps its promises," reads the letter dated Wednesday. "We will not compromise the future of our state by moving the goalposts. We intend to fully enforce all milestones."
The Energy Department's proposed budget for 2014 makes it virtually impossible for SRS to meet its goals, she said.
She said the agency's request to Congress shorts SRS in favor of underperforming sites in other areas of the country that have not met benchmarks, a move she considers short-sighted.
"It simply makes more sense to invest in the site now than put off the work and pay penalties in the future," she said.
The federal agency did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Templeton calls the waste stored in the site's aging tanks the single largest environmental threat in South Carolina.
During the Cold War, the 310-square-mile complex that encompasses parts of Aiken, Barnwell and Allendale counties produced plutonium and tritium for atomic bombs. After years of clean-up efforts at the site, 37 million gallons of waste remain in 49 underground tanks.
"Whether we like it or not, the high-level waste tanks at SRS are continuing to age. Eight of the tanks are partially or completely submerged in groundwater, with recent evidence showing a pathway for groundwater and rainwater intrusion into tank structures," Templeton wrote. "Present action can prevent future crisis, but the time to act is now."
Officials say the large processing facility is needed to reach clean-up goals. Under a joint agreement between the state agency, Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency, the 20 remaining "non-compliant" tanks that carry a higher risk for leaks must be closed by 2022. Each tank has its own closure date. A separate consent order signed with the state in 1995 sets the deadline for all of the high-level waste to be treated by 2028. The Department of Energy agreed to fines of $3,000 daily for missing that date.
In a letter to Templeton, an EPA administrator said his agency realizes that it's increasingly unlikely that the Department of Energy will meet the 2022 deadline under the Federal Facility Agreement.
"We are also very concerned that the lack of funding has significant potential to jeopardize the successful completion of milestones," Stanley Meiburg, acting regional administrator, wrote in a letter dated Aug. 16 and also obtained Thursday by AP.
He praised the work so far at SRS, saying it has met benchmarks and made significant progress since 2004. He agreed all three parties would have to approve any changes in the milestones.
"Current federal funding constraints mean the DOE has to make hard choices," he wrote. However, "changes cannot be made unilaterally, even if there is a funding shortfall."
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