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State's congressmen want legally binding plutonium deal
By James T. Hammond
COLUMBIA -- South Carolina's members of Congress have united behind efforts of Gov. Jim Hodges and U.S. Reps. Lindsey Graham and John Spratt to win a Congressional guarantee that no plutonium be shipped to the state without legally binding assurances of a pathway out.
Rebecca Fleming, Republican U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond's spokeswoman, said, "the senator believes no plutonium should come into South Carolina until an agreement is reached."
Thurmond also believes, she said, that the state should receive "impact assistance."
"He feels the state should be compensated by the federal government if they fail to uphold their obligation," she said.
U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham set off the latest confrontation last week when he notified Hodges that he intended to begin shipping surplus weapons-grade plutonium to South Carolina's Savannah River Site from a closed weapons plant at Rocky Flats, Colo.
The Energy Department has said it must begin the shipments in order to meet its 2006 target date to close Rocky Flats. But Hodges said changes in the plutonium disposal plan outlined by the Energy Department in 1998 made him fear the material might simply be transported to South Carolina for de facto permanent storage.
On Monday, Hodges staged a mock roadblock within sight of the SRS gate to emphasize his intention prevent the shipments until a legally binding agreement is in place with the federal government.
Late Friday, U.S. Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis said "significant progress has been made following vigorous negotiations among all the interested parties."
Republican Third District Rep. Graham and Democratic Fifth District Rep. Spratt have insisted that any Congressional guarantee include fines and penalties against the federal government if it fails to keep its promises to eventually remove the plutonium from South Carolina.
A week ago, Fourth District Rep. Jim DeMint of Greenville joined Graham and Spratt in their opposition to shipments before there is agreement.
This week, Republican Reps. Joe Wilson of the Second District, Henry Brown of the First District, and Jim Clyburn of the Second District put their support behind that position.
Brown said no agreement would be enforceable if it did not contain some penalty against the federal government if it does not build a mixed-oxide fuel plant at the Savannah River Site to convert the plutonium to commercial reactor fuel.
U.S. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings has consistently supported Hodges' demands for a legally binding agreement.
But the senator said Friday that Congress won't be able to act in time to block such shipments, which could begin next month.
"They've said they perhaps could need legislation and I have cautioned that legislation will take quite some time," said Hollings, D-S.C.. "If we put in an amendment on a particular bill today, it's not going to pass or be signed until after Labor Day."
On Thursday, Hodges sent another letter to Abraham restating his willingness to negotiate.
"I continue to believe that a solution can be achieved that will allow the Department of Energy and South Carolina to come to an agreement on plutonium disposition and on shipments of plutonium to this state. I encourage you to work with the Congress, as we are, to accomplish this," Hodges wrote to Abraham.
"I must continue to insist that, whether by enacted legislation or court action, South Carolina must have iron clad assurances that any plutonium that comes into this state is removed in a timely fashion," Hodges said.
"Given DOE's history, the only acceptable agreement is a legally enforceable one with significant penalties for non-compliance. The enforcement measures must be in place before plutonium enters this state," Hodges said.
"Since you have notified Congress that you could begin shipping plutonium to South Carolina as soon as May 15, 2002, this leaves us little time. Again, I encourage you to continue working with Congressmen John Spratt and Lindsey Graham and with me to settle this issue as quickly as possible," Hodges wrote.
(The Associated Press contirbuted to this report).