Originally posted on The State, October 17 2002
Safety-Kleen agrees to pay $148 million
By SAMMY FRETWELL
Safety-Kleen Inc. has agreed on a plan to pay $148 million to monitor a hazardous waste landfill near Lake Marion and to clean up any pollution, the state’s environmental department said Wednesday.
But the bulk of the money would be paid over 100 years.
In exchange, Safety-Kleen would transfer ownership of the landfill to a nonprofit trust that would oversee plans to seal and monitor the waste dump. A trustee chosen by Safety-Kleen and approved by Department of Health and Environmental Control would oversee the trust.
The deal must be approved by a bankruptcy judge.
The agreement removes Safety-Kieen’s existing liability for the waste dump near the town of Pinewood in Sumter County.
Safety-Kieen, once one of the nation’s major hazardous waste companies, has filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11. Such a filing allows a company to reorganize its finances.
Wednesday’s agreement isn’t ideal because it doesn’t require all the $148 million to be paid upfront, state officials said. But given Safety- Kleen’s bankruptcy filing in 2000, it’s the best they could get, they said.
The agreement includes cash payments of at least $27 million next year to pay for sealing the landfill and cleanup, the health department’s lawyer Katherine Wells said.
An additional $121 million would be paid over the next 100 years in annual installments, Wells said. That money is intended to pay for monitoring, but it also could be used to clean up the landfill if needed, said David Wilson, the department’s assistant hazardous waste bureau chief.
The annual payments would come from an annuity Safety-Kleen will purchase.
Wednesday’s announcement is significant because it creates a plan for using the company’s money to clean up any pollution at the landfill, which opened in the late 1970s.
The state and the company have fought for years over how to guarantee the cleanup of any pollution. The state has insisted money be set aside, while the company has pushed for a simple guarantee that it would pay for any problems.
Safety-Kleen spokesman John Kyte said his company was pleased with the deal. “We look forward to putting this matter to rest.”
Company officials maintain the landfill is safe. No pollution from the landfill has been detected in Lake Marion, which eventually could supply water to thousands of people.
But concerns have arisen about possible leaks. One study released last year raised concerns that one of the landfill’s protective plastic liners is wearing out.
“We believe this agreement is fair and in the best interests of the state,” said Lewis Shaw, chief of the state agency’s environmental quality control division.
“The company has agreed to provide adequate funding to cap, secure and maintain the Pinewood facility for the next 100 years. Additional funding also is provided to address any other occurrence at the site that damages the environment.”
Sierra Club lawyer Jimmy Chandler said the deal pales when compared with the original request that Safety-Kleen put $133 million cash in the bank for cleanups. That request came more than a decade ago, but the company successfully lobbied to avoid the cash payments. .
Still, Chandler and representatives from the state Department of Natural Resources and the state-owned Santee Cooper electric utility agreed the Safety-Kleen deal is the best available. If the state continued to seek more cash upfront through bankruptcy proceedings, it eventually could have received nothing, said DNR lawyer Jim Quinn and Santee Cooper executive John Tiencken.
Santee Cooper manages Lake Marion.
Quinn, DNR’s chief legal counsel in proceedings against Safety-Kleen, said the story is a sad but familiar one in South Carolina. Too any companies have closed or filed for bankruptcy in recent years,leaving the state and federal government scrambling to pay for cleaning up the pollution, he said.
“I would hope the state would eventually say, ‘Wait a minute. We’ve got to come up with a better system in dealing with this,’ so that we’re not left in bankruptcy court,” Quinn said,
Safety-Kleen’s 279-acre landfill is within a few hundred yards of Lake Marion, one of South Carolina’s most popular recreational lakes.
For more than 20 years, the site accepted more than 5.6 million tons of hazardous waste and industrial garbage. Chemicals in the landfill include mercury, arsenic and lead, The landfill closed in September 2000.
Last year, DHEC accused Safety-Kleen of failing to tell the agency of problems with a protective liner. The company also was accused of using a firm it owns to certify that parts of the landfill were safe. Such certifications are supposed to be made by independent companies.
Safety-Kleen and DHEC settled those disputes last week, and the company has agreed to address some of the problems, DHEC’s Wilson said. The company was fined $24,600, but the fine won’t be paid because of the settlement, Wilson said.