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Charleston nurdle exporter says it was targeted by environmental groups

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Plastic pellets called "nurdles" are moved from a rail car to a transfer facility at the Frontier Logistics warehouse at the Port of Charleston. Frontier Logistics wants a judge to put an end to a lawsuit over plastic pollution alleged to have come from the company's Union Pier site in downtown Charleston. File/Staff

Frontier Logistics wants a judge to put an end to a lawsuit over plastic pollution alleged to have come from the company's Union Pier site in downtown Charleston, saying environmental groups can't prove where the small pellets came from. 

The Coastal Conservation League and Charleston Waterkeeper filed the lawsuit in federal court after several pellets, also called nurdles, washed ashore at Sullivan's Island and other area beaches last summer. They allege the pellets came from Frontier's waterfront terminal, which bags the product for export through the Port of Charleston.

La Porte, Texas-based Frontier says it has been unfairly targeted as the source of the pollution. It is asking a judge to rule on the environmentalists' claims without hearing further evidence — called a motion for judgment on the pleadings — because it says the allegations haven't been proven.

Laura Cantral, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, said the group will respond to Frontier's request "and we'll let that response speak for itself."

"I can say we have a strong case," Cantral added. "We wouldn't have filed otherwise. The ongoing pellet pollution of our waterfront must stop, and we're committed to achieving that result."

The environmental groups say they have collected more than 14,000 pea-sized pellets in area waters, with the highest concentrations consistently found closest to the Frontier facility. They are suing Frontier for civil violations of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Clean Water Act.

Frontier says the environmental groups set out to prove the company was at fault from the start, scouring locations for months for pellets they could blame on the Union Pier site.

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Plastic pellets washed up on at least a mile of Sullivan's Island's beach last summer. Frontier Logistics, one of the Charleston-area companies that bags the pellets for export, says it is unfairly targeted for the pollution. File/David Creech/Provided

The environmentalists "began staking out a variety of locations around the Charleston Harbor that they believed were both sufficiently close to Frontier’s facility and able to accumulate aquatic debris," the company said in court documents.

The groups "specifically targeted Frontier as a culprit and engaged in this activity for the purpose of justifying that preconceived notion as a matter of convenience, rather than engaging in activity to locate and discover the true source of the pellets," Frontier says in its court filing.

Frontier says fewer than a dozen of the 14,281 pellets that have been collected contain polyethylene, the main chemical component in the pellets it handles at Union Pier. 

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"Based on this limited amount of information, (the groups) have inferred that all 14,281 pellets they have collected came from illegal discharges made solely from Frontier’s facility," the filing states.

Frontier adds there are at least 20 companies in the Charleston area handling plastic pellets and many of the pellets that were found were a different color and different sizes, shapes, cuts, textures, colors and ages than those at Union Pier. In addition, Frontier says, the pellets could have come from an unknown foreign country shipping them to the U.S. East Coast.

The commodity is a raw material used in thousands of everyday plastic goods. 

Environmentalists call the pellets one of the world's biggest pollution threats.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control issued a "notice of alleged violation" against Frontier and inspected the Union Pier facility several times last year. The state agency closed the matter in October without citing Frontier with any violations or taking any other action.

Frontier is one of several Charleston-area companies that take pellets produced by natural-gas refineries along the Gulf Coast and package them for export. The company is building a 550,000-square-foot packaging and distribution site off McMillan Avenue in North Charleston where it will receive pellets in rail cars before getting them ready to send overseas. Braskem Americas, another pellet exporter, said it will lease part of that building for its own operations.

Pellet packager A&R Logistics also is building a 615,000-square-foot distribution center off U.S. Highway 52 near Moncks Corner that will be able to fill another 25,000 containers. Those new facilities will join Mid-States Packaging in North Charleston and A&R Bulkpak in Monks Corner, which have distribution sites able to handle a combined 22,000 cargo containers.

All of them export through the Port of Charleston, which is aiming to capture a majority of the pellets moving through Southeast ports.


Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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