MONCKS CORNER — The head of A&R Logistics marked the official opening of the Charleston area's latest plastic pellet packaging facility Tuesday with a vow to put environmental safety at the forefront of the company's operations.
"We're very proud of our safety record. We've gone years without a safety incident," said Mark Holden, CEO of the Louisville, Ky.-based company, which has more than 6 million square feet of packaging sites across the country. "We've gone years without a contamination and we've gone years without a spill. We have an obligation, and I can assure everyone in the community and the state that we take that responsibility seriously."
The 615,000-square-foot distribution center at West Branch Commerce Park along U.S. Highway 52 will take pea-sized plastic pellets, also called nurdles, brought by trains from Gulf Coast refineries and package them in roughly 50-pound bags to be exported from Charleston to foreign countries. The $60 million facility will employ about 60 workers and can fill 20,000 cargo containers a year at full capacity.
It's one of several such sites opening in the area as Gulf Coast refineries look to diversify their export hubs beyond Houston and New Orleans.
Frontier Logistics is getting ready to open a 550,000-square-foot distribution center in North Charleston that it will share with fellow plastics exporter Braskem America. That will join smaller sites to provide Charleston's port with up to 50,000 containers of exported plastic pellets in the coming years, growing the cargo base with a raw material that's used to make thousands of consumer goods.
The Port of Charleston handles about 7 percent of U.S. plastic pellet exports, according to a report by Journal of Commerce. That trails ports in Houston — which handles more than half — as well as New Orleans and Los Angeles-Long Beach. Through July, pellet shipments from Charleston filled nearly 37,500 20-foot cargo containers, or nearly double the number from 2015.
The polyethylene pellets, which are made from natural gas, have been a boon to the port but have also worried environmentalists, who say improper handling of the tiny beads can lead to pollution. Several pellets washed ashore at Sullivan's Island last summer, and the South Carolina Conservation League and Charleston Waterkeeper are suing Frontier Logistics over the pollution.
The company said it wasn't responsible and many of the pellets that were found are not handled by its local facility. The lawsuit is pending in federal court.
Against that backdrop, A&R Logistics sought to assure the public that its inland Berkeley County site is outfitted with the latest technology to prevent any pollution.
"We must deliver safety and service, and it's in that order," Holden said. "We'll never sacrifice safety for the purpose of service. We have design elements in this facility to protect the environment from any spill or contamination."
Chris Volf, chairwoman of Keep Berkeley Beautiful, said the environmental group met with A&R staffers as the company was getting ready to locate in Moncks Corner.
"What we figured out right from the outset is that this is a company that does it right, that values sustainability and stewardship, who cares about its community and its neighbors," Volf said.
The A&R site can fill up to 2,500 50-pound bags with plastic pellets that arrive on CSX trains. Those bags are then loaded into cargo containers moved by trucks to the port.
The new facility is at the former Carolina Nurseries site on land owned by The Intertech Group. The State Ports Authority is spending $750,000 on public infrastructure, such as roads, at the site while Berkeley County is providing property tax breaks for the company.
A report by Journal of Commerce shows plastic pellet export growth has slowed due to the coronavirus, but is still 6.8 percent ahead of last year's total through July. China and the Asia-Pacific market are the biggest overseas customers.
The pellets are used in such industries as automobile manufacturing, food packaging and medical products.