The U.S. Supreme Court handed North Carolina a victory Tuesday in an epic, decades-long legal battle with other states over plans for a low-level nuclear disposal site that would have been in Wake County.
Seven Southeastern states joined in 1986 to share the burden of disposing of irradiated material produced by nuclear reactors, factories, hospitals and laboratories. North Carolina was picked to host a landfill for the material, and the other states in the compact agreed to help with the costs. But safety concerns and out-of-control expenses delayed the project. Money from the other states dried up. Eventually, North Carolina decided to cancel the project and withdraw from the interstate compact. Other states sought to assess $80 million in penalties.
North Carolina has maintained since 1999 that it didn't owe anything. The Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday.
"It's a great victory for North Carolina. The other states tried to bully us," said House Speaker Joe Hackney, an Orange County Democrat. "Our stance has been vindicated."
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court that the other states were not entitled to seek sanctions and that North Carolina did not have to bear the burden of getting a landfill licensed without financial help from the other states.
In 1989, the planners estimated it would take two years and $21 million to get the landfill up and running. By the end of 1996, the estimate had reached $140 million, and the site wasn't expected to open until 2000. North Carolina spent nearly $37 million on the project. Another $80 million came from the compact.
Former state Rep. George Miller Jr., a Durham Democrat, filed the bill that got the state into the compact arrangement, as well as the bill that led to the withdrawal. He remembers telling fellow lawmakers on the House floor that when the compact stopped sending money, it had changed the terms of the agreement.
"It became not a shared responsibility of other states," Miller said Tuesday in an interview. "It became a responsibility they expected North Carolina to bear."
Miller kept all his files on the compact and said he has been helping with the appeal.
"I think the decision reflected an awareness on the Supreme Court that North Carolina had complied to the extent it could," Miller said.