Back on the books: Charleston Waterkeeper regains nonprofit status

Cyrus Buffum, Charleston Water Keeper. File/Staff 2/3/2013

Charleston Waterkeeper has regained its tax-deductible status with the Internal Revenue Service after losing it more than a year ago for failing to file its paperwork.

The grassroots pollution watchdog is on track, doing valuable work and getting the results that critics have been looking for, its members say.

Charleston Waterkeeper has four programs underway: water quality sampling, a septic pump-out operation for marina and anchored boats in Charleston Harbor, a patrol of "hot spots" of potential pollution and a review of local environmental permits.

The local waterkeeper organization falls under the umbrella of the national Waterkeeper Alliance, a coalition of local organizations watching out for the nation's water quality.

The IRS revoked the nonprofit tax-exempt status for the Charleston group more than a year ago after it failed to file necessary annual paperwork for three years. The revocation rattled supporters whose contributions pay the group's annual expenses of more than $120,000, although donors' contributions continued to be tax deductions under a sponsorship by the national Waterkeeper Alliance.

Employees scrambled to fill in the blanks and filed last August. The IRS recertified the group in April, making it retroactive to 2011.

"We're tremendously grateful to the Internal Revenue Service for making it retroactive," said Walker Brock, board chairman. "We've learned lessons and made the adjustments. We're hoping to put that behind us and move forward.

"Last year was our best year for achievement. We put into place the groundwork to continue to do really good work."

The Charleston group's director and founder, Cyrus Buffum, characterized the first few years of his group as a startup, "a vision and a process of building support," and said it took time to get its programs running.

Waterkeeper groups nationally have a reputation for tackling immediate problems and solving them, and have had signature successes with stopping pollution. Among them are a series of groundbreaking legal actions against polluters and regulators. The Charleston group has allayed environmental community concerns somewhat with its current programs, but some critics say the programs operate on top of other similar efforts.

When Buffum formed the local waterkeeper in 2008, members of the local environmental community hoped it could fill a gap protecting Lowcountry water quality by becoming the eyes, ears and nose on the water day and night, looking for problems and dealing with them. The largely closed-ranks community has been reluctant to publicly criticize the effort so far, but points to the work of other water or riverkeeper groups.

The Catawba Riverkeeper, perhaps the standard for the region, came about in 1997 as a result of a task force looking to guide development in the river watershed. Within a year, the riverkeeper had set up a hotline and took 100 calls about river pollution problems, uncovered the destruction of nearly 2.5 wetland acres which led to the developer being fined, organized residents and prepared a legal case against the state of North Carolina over permit violations, according to its website.

On the other hand, Waccamaw Riverkeeper, an Horry County-based group, has had more modest success similar to the Charleston group, such as water quality testing. It was established as an educational and advocacy group.

Buffum formed Charleston Waterkeeper almost single-handedly. One of the first things he hoped to do was recruit volunteers to watch for construction and stormwater runoff violations. But the tasks of winning certification, then getting an operation funded and running, took precedent.

When the group and board were established, Buffum was paid nearly $50,000 per year - roughly on a par with the Catawba Riverkeeper and more than the Waccamaw Riverkeeper, according to the IRS filings by the groups. The Charleston group now employs five staffers with a payroll that makes up more than two-thirds its annual budget.

Among the critics has been marine mechanic Ken Bonerigo, an early supporter of the effort.

"People think they are contributing to improve our local watershed when, in reality, they are just paying for Charleston Waterkeeper to give the appearance of doing something positive. Cyrus pays himself $4,000 a month to spend almost the same amount a year on water quality? This is just wrong," Bonerigo said.

Buffum concedes that he opened himself up to criticism, relying on charisma and social networking to get the waterkeeper up and running.

"I have put every ounce of myself into the organization for the past five years, even before it was any more than a vision," he said. "Anything that is going to stand the test of time, it takes time to build."

Brock said he would point critics to the results.

"We have data. We have programs. I have been frustrated that all of our programs are falling under the cloud of an administrative error," he said. Buffum "is getting paid commensurate with the work he's done the past 18 months. To hire someone with the experience he's got, we would have to pay more."

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.