Charleston Waterkeeper creating database to track Charleston Harbor estuary polluters

Cyrus Buffum heads out on a river patrol of Charleston Harbor. He looks for pollution and problems with the waterways, and reports them to state agencies.

The tweets, emails and phone calls started as soon as a recent report surfaced that the Cooper River was among the worst in the nation for cancer-causing pollution:

People were asking the Charleston Waterkeeper, “How did this happen?”

Some answers might be coming. A database is being assembled to track discharge permits and reports of more than 100 industries and sewage treatment plants in the Charleston estuary.

The project, already under way, is the waterkeeper’s first major initiative since the local water quality advocate formed in 2008. It’s expected to be operational in the next several months.

With the data, and some time spent on the water, the two-man operation hopes to identify problems, then work with the industry and public and state regulators to clean them up.

Waterkeeper Cyrus Buffum described the database as “a full scale audit to determine (permit) compliance or non-compliance, to open the public’s eye to the simple fact that pollution is being released into our watershed everyday,” both legally and illegally.

Early data suggest approximately one-third of the industries with discharge permits have had one violation or more in the past five years.

Those early numbers might be deceptive, because some violations are issued for minor issues, like turning in paperwork late, said Andrew Wunderley, program director and staff attorney. But “facilities can and do violate. There’s a violation probably every day somewhere in the watershed, and that’s a problem. We should have compliance.”

The Environment America report on the Cooper, released in late March, said industries dumped more than 45,000 pounds of cancer-causing chemicals into the river in 2010, making it the sixth-worst waterway in the country for those pollutants.

It was the latest in a long series of troubling assessments of the Cooper, the 16-mile-long tidal flow where a number of large industries are located.

More than a decade ago, the state’s Charleston Harbor Project study showed the river had already reached the point at which it was taking as much pollution as it could handle.

The study led to tighter restrictions on discharges.

In the wake of those improvements, attention turned to “non-point” pollution, or storm water runoff.

The report shocked people among whom there was a sense that — with fishing, shellfishing and boating common — the harbor estuary was fine.

And it might be. “The (report) is not a risk assessment. It can’t tell you what the risk to human health is. Any or all these releases might be in compliance” with permit limits, designed to protect public health, Wunderley said.

The problem is, nobody really has been watching.

The discharge reports are “self-reporting,” generated by the discharging industry. S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control does random checks and some ambient water quality testing.

But even that hit-or-miss monitoring has been cut back with recent year budget woes.

Charleston Waterkeeper plans to pick up the effort.

“It’s important for the public to know that somebody here in Charleston is working on these issues,” Wunderley said.

Reach Bo Petersen at ?937-5744.