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Thursday, October 29th, 2020
Home » Ports » South Carolina Ports Accused Of Shielding Tenant In Pollution Investigation

South Carolina Ports Accused Of Shielding Tenant In Pollution Investigation

PortandTerminal.com, October 2, 2020

CHARLESTON, SCAccording to media outlet TheState.com, officials at South Carolina ports have been actively shielding a port tenant that is the target of an official pollution investigation. Since the story broke late last week it has also been picked up and covered by other media outlets including The Charlotte Observer as well.

The media publication states that “never-before-seen documents” they have received show that leadership at the South Carolina Ports Authority has been “helping shield Frontier and its business supplier from scrutiny despite internally noting that the company was responsible for spills.” TheState.com specifically mentions Jim Newsome, President and CEO of the South Carolina State Ports Authority.

“No comment to share”

For the record, we have not seen the documents that State Media Co (TheState.com) refers to. PortandTerminal.com has reached out to Liz Crumley, Corporate Communication Manager at South Carolina Port Authority (SCPA) for their side of this story on October 3rd and were informed by her that “SCPA has no comment to share”.

This is what we know.

Nurdles

Nurdles are lentil sized pellets that are produced by the plastics industry and shipped to customers who process them into the plastic products we use every day.

The story starts with nurdles. Nurdles are small plastic pellets about the size of a lentil. They are produced by the plastics industry and are shipped to customers who melt them down and turn them into the plastic products that we use every day.

Accidental spillage and mishandling during shipping means that billions of nurdles end up in the ocean, creating countless problems within the marine ecosystem.

Nurdles on a beach.
Countless billions of nurdles are used each year to make nearly all our plastic products but many end up washing up on our shores.

Nurdles are tiny, persistent and potentially toxic. Due to their size, and often clear colour, nurdles can look like fish eggs or other small animals which makes them particularly attractive to seabirds, fish and other marine wildlife. After being eaten, they enter the food chain and move up the ladder to humans.

Nurdles compared to fish eggs
Here you can see the similarities between fish roe (or eggs) and the clear or opaque, round nurdles. Photo: Cathy Sexton

The plastics industry and the issue of nurdle pollution is a global problem. Over 350 million tonnes of plastic was produced in 2018, weighing more than the total weight of the human population.

What happened in South Carolina?

Nurdles mixed up with ocean debris on a sandy beach.

The story starts off with a complaint by local residents on Sullivan’s Island about large numbers of nurdles washing up on their beaches along South Carolina’s coast.

Upon receiving a complaint last July, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) conducted an inspection at the facilities of a company that packages and ships the nurdles from a nearby pier at the Port of Charleston. The agency found “numerous areas of concern” and alleged the company, called Frontier Logistics, had violated the Pollution Control Act.

Frontier has denied the claims, saying it is being unfairly targeted as the source of the pollution.

Last week, the judge presiding over the case rejected each of Frontier’s arguments opposing the suit, allowing it to continue. He also ordered the S.C. Ports Authority (SPA) to comply with a subpoena to provide information about Frontier to the nonprofits who have been pursuing the case in the courts.

What’s the problem?

The State Media Co. says that new documents that they received as part of the subpoena reveal that management at the South Carolina Ports Authority has been helping shield Frontier and its business supplier from scrutiny despite internally noting that the company was responsible for spills.

“In emails exchanged in private, leaders of both organizations sometimes seemed to dismiss ecological concerns or public accountability, the documents show.”

For his part, Jim Newsome, President and CEO at the port authority, recently told the newspaper that he doesn’t know if the plastic pollution that DHEC linked to Frontier actually came from the company’s facilities, that there would be no way for him to know if it did and that he has “observed that they have maintained good procedures in handling the cargo on Union Pier.”

That’s fine. The problem is that TheState.com says it now has hundreds of pages of new documents, many of which show Mr Newsome’s claim is inaccurate and that management at the authority was well aware of the problem at Frontier.

Internal communication

Before DHEC reached out to the Ports Authority on July 19, 2019, about plastic pellets on Sullivan’s Island, internal emails show that officials at the port authority were already aware of problems with spilling plastic from Frontier’s facilities.

That Friday, the permitting manager at the SPA sent an email to the authority’s Chief Operating Officer, Barbara Melvin, and a director that included photos of dozens of the nurdles strewn against a patch of leaves and twigs on the beach.

“I know we spoke in the past regarding Frontier’s management practices for keeping the plastic pellets out of our waterways,” the manager wrote.

“My understanding is that they are supposed to be sweeping up their spills more often and putting up barricades to keep the pellets from washing away during rainfall … Please consider sending these photos to Frontier to reinforce the message that users of our waterways should be good stewards of our waterways.”

In an email the director then sent to Jim Newsome and others two days later on Sunday, July 21, he said he had walked the entire perimeter of the Frontier operation and “identified four areas that physically could allow the pellets to enter the water as loading dock, rail tracks, expansion joints, and the drain grating.”

Hours later, Newsome emailed Frontier’s CEO, whom the documents show he considered a friend, with notes.

“Of all concerns, the most major one is getting the plastic out of the rip rap below the loading dock and providing a better barrier to keep future settlement of loose plastic from getting into the rip rap,” Newsome wrote, referring to the loose rock on the side of the pier.

“Plastics are the environmental issue du jour in South Carolina.”

He then seemed to suggest to Cook that Frontier’s local manager be crisp and responsive when communicating with DHEC for the sake of optics, since “there are lots of commercials of how plastics litter the oceans” and “plastics are the environmental issue du jour in South Carolina.”

Where does this all go?

The same Sunday Newsome emailed him about the “environmental issue du jour,” Frontier’s CEO pledged to Newsome in an email that he would move towards the goal of prevention. He would see that dock and warehouse strategies for controlling escaping pellets from the facility would be immediately improved, Cook wrote, in order to avoid additional spillage from Frontier.

“This is not going to occur again regardless of weather conditions.”

“We will be adding other measures to insure [sic] no area is subject to pellet migration,” he said. “This is not going to occur again regardless of weather conditions.”

The Ports Authority sent a cleaning crew to Sullivan’s Island that weekend to comb the beach for pellets that had escaped. But when a member of the press reached out to the agency the following Monday to ask why the clean-up was necessary and how it went, and Newsome passed the message on to Frontier, the CEO seemed to sneer at the reporter’s attempt to inform the public of what was happening.

“Inundated with crazies from everywhere”

“Always something. Thanks for the update. Now I’m sure we will be inundated with crazies from everywhere,” Cook wrote in an email to Newsome.

It’s at this point “the crazies” at PortandTerminal.com picked up the story and contacted Liz Crumley, Corporate Communication Manager at South Carolina Port Authority (SCPA) for their side of this story and were informed by her that “SCPA has no comment to share”.

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