NJ eyes SC site for radioactive dirt

300 railroad cars of dirt would be dumped in a landfill near Bishopville, raising concerns

A company wants to send 300 railroad cars of radioactive dirt from New Jersey to South Carolina for burial in a mega garbage dump near Bishopville, rather than dispose of the waste in the Northeast.

The shipments from Sayreville, N.J., to South Carolina would be unprecedented for the mountainous waste dump, a nationally known landfill designed to bury household garbage instead of toxic waste.

Many questions remain unanswered about the disposal plan, but this much is known: dumping the soil would require extra precautions at the Lee County landfill. The radioactive soil poses threats to public safety not normally found in household garbage, records show.

While the radioactivity in the dirt is classified as naturally occurring, the natural levels were “technically enhanced’’ at an industrial site in northern New Jersey, regulators said. As a result, that concentrated and increased the radiation levels, said regulators in South Carolina.

Palmetto State law could, under certain circumstances, allow the disposal of such material in Lee County, but state regulators acknowledge risks.

The material “can present serious health and safety hazards if it is not handled and disposed of properly,’’ according to an internal S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control staff assessment obtained by The State newspaper.

Sayreville’s plan to send radioactive soil to the Lee County landfill is the latest issue raising concerns about the megadump that towers over Interstate 20 in eastern South Carolina.

The dump has for years accepted more out-of-state garbage than any other landfill in South Carolina and has been a source of citizen complaints. In March, a federal jury ordered the landfill’s operator to pay six Lee County residents $2.3 million for failing to control odors that affected their quality of life.

Kent Coleman, director of DHEC’s waste management division, said the amount of the radioactive-laden soil is substantial and worth careful scrutiny. He said some slightly radioactive material occasionally has gone to landfills in small amounts, but never 300 train cars.

DHEC records do not detail the health hazards, but radiation typically can increase a person’s chances of cancer, depending on the dose.

“The volume is a very key issue, in addition to the fact that it is radioactive material and needs special consideration,’’ Coleman said. “The volume is a big issue in terms of how it is handled.’’

The landfill likely would need to bury the radioactive New Jersey dirt under a deeper cover of soil than is now required for garbage. Household trash can be buried under several feet of soil at a landfill, but the radioactive dirt from New Jersey might need to be buried under 30 feet, Coleman said. The material also would have to be covered up immediately after it was dumped in the landfill, agency records show.

Disposing of the material in Lee County would require DHEC to modify landfill operator Republic Services’ permit, Coleman said. So far, Republic has not sought to modify its permit.

It was not clear why Sayreville Seaport Associates wants to dispose of the material at the Republic landfill near Bishopville, instead of in another nearby state or at a low-level nuclear waste dump.

Efforts to reach company officials last week were unsuccessful.

But Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said the Garden State does not have any landfills permitted to handle radioactive soil like that from Sayreville.

Sayreville Seaport Associates is working with the New Jersey town to clean up and redevelop the site, which housed industrial plants from the 1930s to 1982. Site cleanup includes removal of soil tainted by toxic PCBs, as well as radiological contamination.

Cost also could be a reason South Carolina is being sought as a place to dump New Jersey’s waste soil.

Fees to discharge the waste in one of the nation’s few low-level radioactive garbage dumps are substantially higher than fees at municipal landfills. So if the material can be discharged legally into a garbage landfill, that would be preferable, said several experts on low-level nuclear waste.

At the same time, garbage landfills in the Northeast typically charge about twice as much as South Carolina to dispose of waste, including the one in Lee County, said Nancy Cave, who tracks garbage issues for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League.

Some Northeastern states charge $70 to $80 per ton, compared to about $35 per ton in South Carolina, Cave said.

“My guess is once the people of Lee County hear about this they are going to be up in arms,’’ Cave said. “DHEC should at least notify the people of Lee County they are amending the permit or planning on amending the permit, or even thinking of allowing this.’’

Gary Poliakoff, an attorney who won the $2.3 million judgment against Republic Services in March,

said interest in bringing the New Jersey waste to South Carolina is part of a pattern that has plagued the state for decades.

South Carolina, he said, is historically an easy place to dump trash.

“Again, we have a generator from out-of-state that wants to bring this stuff here,’’ he said. “South Carolina is much more lax in granting permits and South Carolina is much more lax in monitoring and enforcement.’’

During their preparation for the March odor trial, Poliakoff and fellow lawyers found no evidence that radioactive material had been disposed of at the Lee County landfill, he said.

Soil that would be shipped from New Jersey to South Carolina would free the 425-acre NL Industries site so the land can be redeveloped along the Raritan River.

The redevelopment project has been touted by Sayreville town officials as a boon to the local economy. It would include up to five hotels, 2,000 homes and extensive retail space, as well as a 2.5-mile public access along the waterfront. By the time it is completed in the next decade, the project would produce an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 jobs and $22 million in annual revenue to Sayreville, local officials have said.

Attempts to reach Sayreville Mayor Kennedy O’Brien were unsuccessful last week. Sayreville Seaport attorney Tommy Lavender said the company would not comment.

“Isn’t it interesting that they are doing a brownfield renovation in New Jersey to make the site there available for another use, then bringing the waste here and putting it in Lee County,’’ the Conservation League’s Cave said.