Microplastic spill in Charleston Harbor prompts calls for stricter enforcement

The Investigators

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – On July 19, The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control received a complaint regarding small plastic pellets being washed ashore on Sullivans Island.

Five days later, the same pellets washed ashore the Isle of Palms prompting an investigation into a spill originating from the port.

The pellets, known as nurdles, are the basis of almost all plastic products. They are shipped across the globe to manufacturers who melt, color, and shape the resin into plastic goods.

Andrew Wunderly with Charleston Waterkeeper says the microplastics have a significant impact on the environment.

“Once they spill they are almost impossible to get out they travel real easily in the wind and the current and can end up anywhere,” Wunderly said.

Following the visit to Sullivans Island, DHEC staff conducted a site visit at Frontier Logistics, a supply chain management company that transloads plastic pellets.

According to DHEC’s violation notice, staff members noticed pellets that resembled those found on the beach.

The report notes there were “numerous areas of concern, as plastic pellet accumulation was observed throughout the facility.”

DHEC is investigating Frontier Logistics claiming the company violated the Pollution Control Act. The company could face fines between $500 and $25,000.

On July 23 department staff conducted a follow-up visit at the facility which is located on Union Pier. The report shows that Frontier personnel discussed the utilization of netting throughout the facility to prevent future spills into the harbor.

A Count on 2 investigation into the spill revealed Frontier is just one of more than 20 shippers that exports synthetic resin through the harbor.

State Senator Sandy Senn says the industry’s size should create a greater push for protective measures.

“The nurdles are big business for our port and we want our port to succeed, but we are always going to have to have accountability at our port. “

According to a South Carolina Ports Authority spokesperson, synthetic resin volumes have increased 55% since 2011.

“This isn’t a first, but we want to make it the last at least in our area,” Senn said.

SC Ports Chief Operating Officer, Barbara Melvin said the company has made operational changes to prevent future spills. 

“The SCPA believes that the plastics industry is good business for the port and we and the State have actively worked to recruit these exports. Companies are making significant investments in bagging operations in and around the Charleston area that will lead to the operations relocating away from the water,” Melvin said.

DHEC’s investigation is ongoing but Wunderly says the company needs to face repercussions.

“The only way to make sure this doesn’t happen again is if DHEC levees significant penalties and has a strong enforcement action.”

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