HOPKINS, SC (WIS) - If the goal was to win over public confidence, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) and Westinghouse fell very short Monday night during a heated community gathering at Hopkins Park.
"You know, I just want you to know, at this stage of the game, I have no confidence in anything you're telling us tonight," said one of the community members, who addressed Westinghouse and DHEC directly during the question-and-answer session.
"Like she said, song and dance. We hear the same thing over and over again," added another.
The community meeting happened in Hopkins about a month after workers at a nearby plant discovered something startling: a tank at the Westinghouse Nuclear Fuel Fabrication Facility sprung a leak, which sent a mixture of liquid acid (Hydrofluoric Acid) and Uranium (Uranyl Nitrate) through a broken liner into the soil below.
"There's no groundwater up in here. There's no evidence that groundwater itself has been impacted from this release," said Ken Taylor, of DHEC, while pointing to a diagram of the leak.
While DHEC tried to calm down fears that drinking water could be contaminated, Westinghouse did the same.
"We have no evidence that this leak or any other previous issue that we've had on the site has went off-site in groundwater," said Mike Annacone, the plant's manager.
However, the room became restless over the questions that couldn't be answered including how much uranium seeped into the soil before the leak was capped.
"How much material leaked? And how much Uranium leaked? Did anybody hear that tonight?" Tom Clements, with Friends of the Earth, asked the room rhetorically.
Minutes later, when Annacone was pressed for an answer, he finally gave one.
"We don't know right now," he said. "We don't know right now."
Annacone explained that Westinghouse is still in the process of removing a slab of concrete to more accurately measure the scope of the spill. While an exact measurement in gallons will likely never be known, soil testing should give the company and regulators a better sense of how much soil is contaminated and whether groundwater beneath the spill site is also impacted.
After the contentious night of questions, Annacone also vowed to improve the plant, committed to operating it more safely in the future, and promised to do more community outreach, which is a promise the company has broken in the past.
"I'm sorry about that, okay? So I won't make that mistake again. Okay. I understand you don't believe me, and that's okay," he said.
Still, some in the crowd urged Westinghouse to pay to test private wells and DHEC expressed some interest in testing residential wells nearest the spill site.
Another meeting will be held before the end of the month. Sen. Darrell Jackson (D-Richland) and Richland County Councilwoman Dalhi Myers promised to hold feet to the fire and continue to pursue answers for their constituents.