COLUMBIA – Seventy years ago, the federal government dug nearly 200,000 acres in rural South Carolina to produce nuclear material for the national Cold War arsenal.
The government moved families, farms and entire towns – even cemeteries had to disappear – as construction began in 1951 along the state’s southern border with Georgia. The site, originally called the Savannah River Factory, or “Bomb Factory” for locals, occupied 310 square miles of Barnwell, Aiken and Allendale counties, a strip large enough to accommodate the city of Charleston 2 and a half times.
More than three decades after the reactors closed, local authorities want to recover a tiny part.
Their proposal would transform 5,000 acres on the outskirts of the Savannah River site into a mega industrial park, in a bid to replace thousands of high-paying jobs lost due to mission changes and broken federal promises. And with the land returning to the tax rolls, private employers there would simultaneously increase the county’s opportunities and coffers.
“We are trying to find more industrial land that will never be developed for anything else and make it a win-win for the communities,” said Will Williams, president of the Aiken-based regional economic development partnership.
The three counties in which the SRS sits would share property tax revenue, which would help all three, he said. But he noted that this would mainly benefit Barnwell and Allendale, two of the state’s poorest counties which have lost population as SRS, textile and factory jobs dry up.
But the idea is far from reality.
This requires a transfer agreement from the US Department of Energy – a big hurdle. And local authorities are asking lawmakers $ 25 million to build the water and sewer systems that businesses need.
Both have the backing of Governor Henry McMaster, who will include the request for the funding in his recommendations on how to spend the available $ 525 million from the state’s available regulations on plutonium stored at the SRS, his spokesman Brian said. Symmes.
And the GOP governor will do what he can to push for a transfer of land from the federal government, he said.
The local authorities tried for several years without success. But a concerted push from lawmakers – and the broad support that a $ 25 million investment would mean – would carry more weight, said Danny Black, chairman of SouthernCarolina Alliance, the Barnwell-based regional economic development group.
Its poor, rural counties lack the political power to make it happen, he said.
“It hasn’t been at the top of (DOE’s) list to give us land, but I think it can gain momentum, especially if the state accepts that this is something that could happen and that ‘They are getting involved in the push on the state side, “Black mentioned. “It’s a gem setting there, and we’re not pushing it.”
The idea was presented during negotiations with the federal government over tons of military-grade plutonium left underground in Barnwell County, where most of the SRS is located, Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office confirmed. But this plan was not incorporated into the settlement announced by Wilson last year.
And, while a 5,000-acre industrial park is said to be one of the largest in the state, the Commerce Department is not involved in the effort, a spokeswoman said. The agency is generally involved in large economic development projects of this nature.
U.S. Representative Joe Wilson, whose district includes SRS, has seen plans proposed by local officials and is supporting investments in communities. But he wants to ensure that a sufficient barrier is maintained at the site to appropriately secure its national security-related operations.
His office is working with the Department of Energy to explore the possibility “without affecting the safety and security of missions at the site,” he said.
Senatorial Minority Leader Brad Hutto, whose district includes all Barnwell Counties and part of Allendale Counties, noted that there is precedent for transfers to other federal nuclear complexes.
“You don’t need as much of a buffer as you used to,” Hutto, an Orangeburg Democrat, said of the unused land behind the fence that prevented public viewing of the site’s covert operations.
The Department of Energy has returned thousands of acres of nuclear sites in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Wash., To their communities.
The agency’s potential opposition and environmental obstacles to doing so to the SRS are unclear. No one from the federal agency returned phone or email messages left by The Post and Courier in the past week.
“It might be the best thing in the world for us,” Black said of the proposed site along the Aiken and Barnwell counties border. “If that could happen, we could compete with anyone for expensive projects.”
The corporate recruiting pitch would highlight the property’s rail lines, access to the Savannah River, a two-lane national highway that crosses it, and the workforce available in the wider Augusta area, in Georgia, he said.
Its fictitious industrial park layout has an automobile manufacturer on one side. Other possibilities include data center operations or the cybersecurity offshoots of the Georgia Cyber Center and the US Army Cyber Command at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Black said.
“The federal government should reward us,” he said, noting that the then Atomic Energy Commission had not just taken a third of the land in Barnwell County, “they took the best. . It’s the edge of the river. “
When the location was chosen in 1950, approximately 6,000 people had 15 months to evacuate.
Representative Lonnie Hosey, D-Barnwell, was just 4 years old in January 1951, when his mother and uncle piled his family’s things in the back of a truck and left their home in Dunbarton for good. A year later, Dunbarton was among the small towns wiped off the map.
“The day we left was a cold, chilly day,” said Hosey, who represented Barnwell and Allendale counties in the House for 22 years.
He remembers his uncle putting the house’s “old pot-bellied stove,” with hot coals still inside, in the back of the truck. His uncle placed him next to him and his younger brother, bundled up in blankets, so they could stay warm on the journey to Elko. He doesn’t know how his uncle arranged their new home.
“We were moving like the ‘Beverly Hillbillies’,” said Hosey, who joined the Marine Corps 15 years later and fought in Vietnam.
There are stories like this all over the region, Hutto said.
“Think about it. After World War II, people returned home and looked for work. All of a sudden the federal government says, “We need a site to build bombs. We choose you. Move around ”. It wasn’t “Do you want to move?” It was ‘Move on,’ Hutto told a Senate panel as he crafted a spending plan for the settlement money.
“We didn’t ask for this, but we embraced it and in many ways we thrived,” he said. “We could be bitter, but we are not. But it has touched us and continues to impact us.”
When the Cold War officially ended in 1991, more than 25,000 people worked at the SRS. That fell to around 11,000 – mostly in research, cleaning and security jobs – with around half of the workers commuting from Aiken County, 590 from Barnwell County and just 47 from Allendale. More than a third of employees commute from Georgia, according to the Sept. 28 presentation to Senators.
Hosey plans to make a similar presentation to his colleagues in the House.
“Rural South Carolina is catching the heck. Does the Cold War continue to affect our region? Yes,” Hosey said. “People are leaving the area and going somewhere else and staying somewhere else because there is nothing to come back to. It keeps dying, dying, dying as the population shrinks.
“Help us,” he said, previewing his case. “We need help to grow.”