DHEC: Contamination is not a new problem

First Byline: 
Susan C. Delk - Managing Editor

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, along with Chem-Nuclear, recently released its annual monitoring report on the tritium contamination at the Barnwell facility. The report indicated contamination levels at most of the monitoring wells targeted for review remained the same or measured less contamination over the past five years.
DHEC officials said although the contamination has been monitored since 1978, there have been some "sensationalized" news articles covering the report. Several DHEC officials have spoken out about the report and how they feel some news reports have "glossed over" factual information.
"Most importantly, let us point out that residents of this area are not in any danger. The plume that was discussed during last week's annual meeting is the same plume that has been closely monitored for years. Tritium was first detected in on-site groundwater monitoring wells in 1978," said Jim Beasley with S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control in Columbia.
Bealsey was speaking about an annual monitoring report released in December by DHEC and Chem-Nuclear and the annual meeting which was held Jan. 9 in Columbia.
"To track the changes in concentrations within the plume, DHEC requires Chem-Nuclear to submit an Annual Trending Report each year on whether the tritium plume is getting larger or smaller, and whether the levels of tritium are going up or down in certain wells, Beasley said. "It is difficult to spot a trend from one year to the next so the trending report uses statistics to measure how the plume has changed over the past five years."
"As stated in the Annual Update ..., 27 monitoring locations were evaluated for changes in tritium concentrations...the tritium data indicates that 10 monitoring locations show no evidence of a trend either up or down, six locations show an upward trend, and 11 locations show a downward trend over the most recent five-year period (third quarter 2008 to second quarter 2013)," Beasley said.
Beasley said while some plans have been put in place to mitigate the amount of tritium getting into the groundwater, additional protective measures would be put into place should the levels begin to rise significantly.
"Beginning in 1991, covers made of multiple layers of materials (called "enhanced caps") were constructed on top of the oldest trenches. These caps reduce the amount of rainwater flowing through the disposed waste and into the groundwater below. The enhanced caps were constructed in phases and now cover all closed trenches, he said.
"The current stability in tritium levels at the point of compliance appears to demonstrate the effectiveness of the enhanced caps," Beasley said.
"DHEC remains vigilant in our oversight of the Chem-Nuclear Site and has a plan to implement additional protective measures should tritium levels begin to rise significantly," he said.
The plume is headed in a south-southwesterly direction toward Mary's Branch Creek. Residential areas are not affected, Beasley said.
Robert W. King Jr., the deputy commissioner for Environmental Quality Control at DHEC, also spoke out about recent reports on DHEC's website.
"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," King said.
"Claims have recently arisen in certain media, especially social media, that have gone unchallenged for their scientific validity and veracity, and have unnecessarily upset your readers and others in this region," Beasley said.
"Our staff reported during the meeting that our sampling shows the intensity of the plume is currently on the decline. And the highest levels of tritium are found in the area of Mary's Branch Creek -- a creek that is located on land with restricted access and drilling." This property is currently off-limits for drinking, fishing, hunting, swimming and irrigation, Beasley said.
Records of tritium measurements in Mary's Branch Creek date as far back as 1984. The site began disposing of waste in 1971 and tritium contamination was observed in 1978.
"Tritium concentrations at the point of compliance on Mary's Branch Creek have decreased over the five-year period. This is a change from the previous 12 years where tritium levels were stable," according to the annual report.
How much waste is
coming into the facility?
It's declining each year.
Since July 2008, the Chem-Nuclear Site only accepts waste from the three member states of the Atlantic Compact: Connecticut, New Jersey and South Carolina. The levels of waste intake have decreased in the past few years. The drop has been significant. From 12,865.57 cubic feet in 2008-09 to 8,737.25 cubic feet in 2012-13, according to the report.
How much is too
much tritium?
"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, King said.
A tritium level of 100,000 picocuries per liter equates to an exposure of five millirem per year, King said.
"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," King said.
King said other news outlets have "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," King said. "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," he said.
King said all the DHEC reports are public information and have been reported on by numerous media outlets over the life-span of the contamination.
"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 years after Barnwell closes," King said.