Scoppe: South Carolina should learn from Safety-Kleen debacle

COLUMBIA, SC — THE YEAR was 1994, and South Carolina had acquired a well-earned reputation as the nation’s dump, hosting massive nuclear and hazardous waste landfills and a medical-waste incinerator that accepted waste from around the country, when the DHEC board did something extraordinary: It ordered Laidlaw Environmental Systems to post a $133 million cash bond to pay for the clean-up that will be needed when the paint sludge, cancer-causing industrial solvents, pesticides and other hazardous materials leak out of the company’s landfill and into Lake Marion.

Although that might not sound like a lot today, it was unprecedented in a state whose political, regulatory and business communities had embraced Laidlaw and other waste companies for decades.

What happened next was not extraordinary: In less than a year, Laidlaw lobbyists, joined by the state’s business lobby, convinced the board of the Department of Health and Environmental Control — under what clearly was pressure from the Legislature — to back down. Instead of cash, the company could buy an insurance policy.

The issue wound its way through the courts for the next five years until the company, by then Safety-Kleen, filed for bankruptcy. With few options, South Carolina agreed to a settlement of more than $150 million that required Safety-Kleen to buy an annuity that would pay the state about $1 million to $3 million annually for 100 years; in return, the state agreed not to seek any money to pay for monitoring, and for cleanup if the costs went beyond that.

Flash forward 10 years: DHEC Director Catherine Templeton is warning that the annuity payments already are coming up far short of what she needs to monitor the 279-acre dump in Sumter County. Taxpayers could be on the hook for another $100 million just to keep an eye on the migrating contaminants. That’s $100 million we won’t be able to spend paying for more or better teachers or Highway Patrol troopers or SLED agents — or highways. It’s $100 million we’ll be spending because our legislators decided to coddle a polluter rather than protecting our environment.

And that’s the best-case scenario. If a minor leak develops, and it will, the cost could double; if a major leak develops, a clean-up could cost as much as $1 billion.

It would be easy to say we told you so. This editorial board was among many voices — including environmental groups, then-Sen. Phil Leventis, the state Department of Natural Resources and the state-owned Santee Cooper power company, which manages Lake Marion — warning that the state needed to require more of Safety-Kleen.

What I’d rather say is this: Let’s learn from our mistakes.

The first lesson: Landfills leak. Maybe not today. Maybe not next year. But eventually. And so in addition to being careful about where we allow them to be put, and insisting on the latest technology, we ought to be trying to minimize the number of them — rather than maximizing it.

We have to have landfills to take care of the waste generated by South Carolina’s citizens and businesses. We do not have to have landfills to take care of everyone else’s waste.

The problem is that stopping that takes some doing. Governments are free to limit who can use their own landfills. But the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from restricting interstate commerce, and the courts have decided that garbage is just like any other product, so states can’t limit where private landfills get their trash.

That’s why it took decades to shut down the medical-waste incinerator and hazardous-waste dump, and to shut off access to the nuclear landfill to most states. It’s why we’re likely to be stuck for decades more by mega-solid-waste dumps that were able to get a toehold in our state because of DHEC’s bungling of our solid-waste law.

Our lawmakers ought to at least resist efforts to scale back what few protections we have in place. That’s something they ought to think about as the Senate takes up a House-passed bill that municipalities say will make it impossible for them to maintain the solvency of their own landfills, thus paving the way for more private landfills to come in and solicit out-of-state waste.

Government officials in South Carolina historically have been more concerned about attracting businesses to the state and keeping them happy once they’re here than about protecting the environment and the taxpayers. This is one reason South Carolina has been a leading importer of waste, from nuclear and hazardous to medical and now municipal.

While business needs are an important concern in making policy, they can’t be the only concern. And certainly not short-term business needs.

Being known as the nation’s dumping ground hardly enhances our tourism allure. Having to pay tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to keep other states’ waste from leaking into our lakes and rivers and groundwater hardly makes us look smart to businesses thinking about bringing jobs here.

When our lawmakers are approving regulations and permitting requirements and doling out incentives to lure companies to our state, they need to consider the effect that landfills will have on our reputation. And on the environment.

Otherwise, South Carolinians will lose far more than we gained from the taxes and jobs those companies provided — as we are learning with the Safety-Kleen dump.