Savannah River tests would warn Beaufort County water officials of radioactive materials

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comFebruary 4, 2014 

As an environmental group goes back to court Wednesday to push for stricter controls on a nuclear dump site near the Savannah River, a Lowcountry water official said water from the river is safe.

Even if the amount of radioactive material in the water increased slightly, it still would be safe, according to Matthew Brady, a spokesman for the Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority. The water authority pumps much of the water used by Lowcountry residents from the Savannah River.

"If there were to be some sort of spike, we'd know well before that contaminated water reached our river intake," Brady said. "What we'd do at that point is shut down our intake and work off reserves until that contaminated water passes us by."

The water authority is part of the Central Savannah River Area Radiological Environmental Monitoring Program, which regularly tests the river for radioactive materials, Brady said.

The consortium includes the Environmental Protection Agency, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, the Savannah River Site and the Alvin W. Vogtle nuclear plant in Waynesboro, Ga., Brady said.

In the early 1990s, the water authority did have to temporarily stop pumping from the river after a radioactive water leak from the Savannah River Site, Brady said. Today, the tests for such materials are more sophisticated and reliable, he said.

In the event of an extended contamination, the utility's reserves could sustain service for several weeks and it could also tap its several groundwater wells, he said.

In Beaufort and Jasper counties, BJWSA is the only water utility that pulls water directly from the river, Brady said. The utility also sells some of that water to the Broad Creek and Hilton Head public services districts on Hilton Head Island. The South Island Public Service District on Hilton Head does not buy BJWSA water. All three of the Hilton Head districts also pull groundwater from wells.

Traces of radioactive tritium continue to be found in the Savannah River, but only in amounts that are about 2 to 3 percent of the EPA's maximum allowed contaminant levels, Brady said.

Nonetheless, that has raised the concern of the Sierra Club, which has waged a decade-long legal battle for stricter controls at a nuclear-waste landfill near the river. The group says tritium continues to pollute a tributary of the Savannah River just downhill from a state-owned site in rural Barnwell County.

The S.C. Court of Appeals will hear arguments Wednesday from the environmental group that could force the landfill's operator, Energy Solutions, to change its burial practices, which the Sierra Club calls outdated and dangerous.

Tritium is one of the least dangerous of radioactive materials, but landfill critics point out that it often is a precursor to deadly radioactive contamination that moves more slowly in groundwater. For example, well samples tested by DHEC at the landfill have identified Carbon-14, Uranium-238 and Polonium-210 in groundwater.

"How long it could take for stuff like that to get out, nobody really knows," environmental lawyer Amy Armstrong said. "The predictions haven't been very reliable.

"It just seems to make sense to want to do everything you can to prevent the likelihood of (the spread of chemicals from) happening."

The (Columbia) State staff writer Sammy Fretwell contributed to this report.

Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

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