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Aug. 20—A parade of elected officials and community leaders representing Aiken, Allendale and Barnwell counties capitalized on a Friday summit with S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster to make one thing clear: The region surrounding the Savannah River Site is owed the bulk of the state's $600 million settlement with the Department of Energy.
Because Aiken, Allendale and Barnwell counties have for decades shouldered the nuclear burden of the Savannah River Site — where toxic plutonium was once produced, where millions of gallons of radioactive waste are stored pending processing, and where nuclear weapons work continues — the trio is most deserving of the money, officials told the Republican governor.
"We are united in our belief that the three-county region should receive the lion's share of the settlement funds," Aiken County Council Chairman Gary Bunker said during the meeting, which was hosted by USC Aiken.
"We are glad to share the dollars, if other counties are willing to help shoulder the burden of the plutonium," Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon said, cutting to the heart of the matter, the metric tons of plutonium kept at the Savannah River Site's K-Area. "Just send the address where you want your plutonium delivered when you submit your request for funding."
It's a point the governor appreciates; McMaster late last year said the tri-county crescent "ought to receive at least the majority, a good majority, of these funds in one way or another." He reiterated that position Friday: "I do think that the majority of those funds need to stay in this area. The three counties were represented very well in the meeting, and there's a lot of interest and a lot of opportunity."
The $600 million sum in question stems from a tectonic deal hashed out last year by Palmetto State and Energy Department officials. In seeking to resolve a protracted standoff over the storage of plutonium south of Aiken, the two parties reached an agreement: The DOE would remove from South Carolina 9.5 metric tons of the hazardous material by 2037 — years ahead of prior projections — and the Trump administration would cut a $600 million check.
"We are here because of the federal government's failure to remove the stored plutonium and failure to fulfill the MOX project promise," state Sen. Tom Young said Friday. The Aiken Republican during the meeting detailed the legislative history that formed the foundation of the 2020 settlement. He further insisted the funds be invested in education, economic development and infrastructure projects across the three counties.
Exactly how the settlement money will be divvied up falls to the Legislature. McMaster on Friday said he was not worried about the appropriations process getting hijacked.
"I think it's going to work out just right," the governor said, adding that the opportunity should not be wasted, "that we invest in things that will transform our state for the future, for the better."
State Rep. Bill Clyburn, the Aiken Democrat recently named the vice chairman of the SRS and ARPA Appropriations Ad Hoc Committee, on Friday described the moment as a crossroads, "where we can make a tremendous change now."
"We can close the gap of disparities," Clyburn said.
Allendale and Barnwell counties are among the poorest areas of the state. Barnwell County sacrificed the most land for the creation of the Savannah River Site so many years ago and has dealt with the ill effects since, said Harold Buckmon, the county council chairman there.
"You can't say don't get political, because if it wasn't, there wouldn't be all these politicians here," Buckmon said. "But we all have our demands."