'This money is different': SC Senate majority leader backs local spending of SRS settlement

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Nov. 1—It only makes sense the communities nearest the Savannah River Site receive most of the state's plutonium settlement money, as radioactive substances near Aiken and Barnwell never stopped someone from vacationing in Myrtle Beach, the S.C. Senate majority leader recently said.

"This money is different," Sen. Shane Massey said of the $600 million the Palmetto State secured from the Trump administration last year. "The reason we're getting this money is all because of what the local community had to absorb and had to deal with."

Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, an Orangeburg Democrat, Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon and other officials have argued a similar point: The federal government decades ago seized thousands of acres in Aiken, Barnwell and Allendale counties in order to conduct clandestine nuclear work; why should places farther afield, and untouched, be compensated for that?

What's at stake

Some $525 million is up for grabs following the Department of Energy's settlement with South Carolina over the storage of plutonium, a nuclear-weapons ingredient, near Aiken.

It's safe to say everyone wants a piece; the money could springboard long-delayed or transformative projects — broadband, commerce, education, infrastructure — and could make a world of difference for some of the state's poorest areas.

Leaders across Aiken, Allendale and Barnwell counties are advocating for local application of the funds. It's only right, they have said, to spend the money in the region that for decades has shouldered the radioactive burden of the Savannah River Site.

Support from political leadership, including the S.C. Senate majority and minority leaders, is instrumental to that end.

"Obviously," said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, "any time you talk about money, everybody thinks they have a good project, right?"

"There are people that have not come here, or there have been business that have not located here," said Massey, R-Edgefield, "and there are businesses that are negatively affected because of decisions the federal government has made regarding the storage or the distribution of the plutonium."

Metric tons of plutonium are kept at the Savannah River Site, about 30 minutes south of Aiken. The Department of Energy is working to process and remove the material, which can be used in nuclear weapons.

Exactly how the money — $525 million after attorneys fees — will be divvied up falls to the Legislature. Gov. Henry McMaster has said he is not worried about the appropriations process being commandeered.

"I think it's going to work out just right," the governor said in August.

Hutto in September suggested implementing a tiered system for the money. The algorithm — three buckets, he called it — would favor Aiken, Allendale and Barnwell counties, but would still provide money to areas outside the Savannah River Site neighborhood.

"We're not asking for all of the money," Hutto told fellow lawmakers, "but we're asking that we get our fair share."

Massey last week predicted the money would not be appropriated until the new year.

"The Senate had talked about going back to address it. The House decided that they weren't going to do anything budget-related until January. It's something that has to be passed by both bodies," the senator said. "I do think there's been a good bit of work on it, though."

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