Is there, or is there not, a ship heading to Charleston from Brazil with nearly 47 tons of medical waste?
State and federal officials insisted Friday that they know little to nothing about foreign news reports that dirty bedding, gowns, tubing, masks and syringes were supposedly sent from South Carolina to Brazil, which rejected the shipment and sent it back.
And those in a position to know would not share what they might know about the matter.
"I've seen what's reported in the South American media," said Allison Skipper, spokeswoman for the State Ports Authority.
She said she knows nothing beyond the claim in the Latin American Tribune, which reported that 46.6 tons of hospital waste was intercepted and rejected by Brazilian authorities in October, and was sent on a return trip to Charleston.
Skipper said local officials have conferred and have chosen to let the federal U.S. Customs & Border Protection Service be the local spokesmen for the issue.
CBPS Area Port Director Robert Fencel said Friday that he is not cleared to speak on the matter. "I'm waiting for approval from my headquarters," Fencel said. He said that approval might not come until Monday.
Meanwhile, he said, he cannot answer any questions.
Adam Myrick, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said Thursday state law requires that the DHEC be notified when any shipment of waste is entering the port, and no such notification has taken place.
He said he hasn't been able to confirm that any medical waste shipment was sent to Brazil.
Myrick said Friday that the DHEC is poised to ensure that waste is properly disposed of -- if and when notification is made that it is on the way or has arrived.
Meanwhile, he said, DHEC has been in contact with other agencies about the supposed shipment. He was unable to state which agencies DHEC has talked to.
Myrick said he can't conclude that the foreign news accounts are bogus, but said it seems a bit unusual that hospital waste from South Carolina would be shipped to Brazil.
There is a treatment plant in Richland County, and medical waste from in-state is usually decontaminated there or at other treatment plants in nearby states before being disposed of in municipal or county landfills, he said.
Fox News Latino on Jan. 23 reported that two days earlier, a shipment left the port of Suape, headed to "the U.S. port of Charleston, South Carolina" with 46.6 tons of hospital waste that had been intercepted in October in the northeastern state of Pernambuco by customs agents.
"The hospital waste cargo consists of sheets, pillowcases, towels, used syringes, various hospital masks and tubes bearing the logos of U.S. hospitals," the news service reported.
The Latin American Herald Tribune picked up the story and stated that along with the medical waste, customs authorities intercepted "another 14 containers containing 15 tons of 'suspicious' materials."
The Tribune claimed, "The shipments came from a single exporter in South Carolina and were being sent to a textile company suspected of violating the national waste policy, which prohibits importation of trash from other countries.
"In the import documentation for the containers, the shipment is described as being defective cotton fabric," the Tribune said.
In recent years, the story maintained, "Brazilian authorities have intercepted many containers coming from Europe and filled with domestic waste at their ports, and their habitual practice has been to return those shipments to their ports of origin."