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Charleston plastic company cited for pollution after 'nurdle' spill on Sullivan's Island

Loose plastic pellets accumulated in piles around a shipping company at a downtown Charleston port — enough that state regulators found "numerous areas of concern."

Frontier Logistics has been cited for violating the state's pollution control act following that July 19 visit by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. A follow-up visit later that week still found loose pellets on the grounds, although fewer. 

The inspections and violation notice followed the discovery earlier this month of clusters of the tiny plastic "nurdle" pellets along the wrack line on the Sullivan's Island beach. Crews there spent a week picking them up by hand.

DHEC has told the company to install netting "throughout the facility, rail car unloading zone, and any areas where pellets could potentially migrate into waterways."

Fines for the violation could reach as much as $10,000 per day, but the state regulation requires a process of hearings and potential settlements. Most violations end up in a remediation and settlement of some sort.

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Plastic pellets — these destined for Europe — are packaged at the Frontier Logistics warehouse at the Port of Charleston. Plastics are a growing export commodity at the port. File/Wade Spees/Staff

Nurdles are used to make most every commercial plastic item in the market. They are a petroleum product considered toxic to the environment because they can poison or clog the guts of marine animals. They resemble tiny fish eggs or beads.

DHEC first inspected the company the day after the pellets were found, and it issued its notice almost two weeks later. Meanwhile, the pellets also have been reported on the Isle of Palms and on a sandbar near Fort Sumter. Tides tend to carry floating debris in and out of Charleston Harbor, where the port terminal is located.

State Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, called on DHEC last week to take action. She was glad to see the notice, she said.

"Levying penalties might curtail future spills since any subsequent violation would bring higher penalties. These pellets are big money makers for the manufacturer and the only way to make sure they are more responsible for their product and our environment is to hit them in the pocketbook," Senn said.

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Crews on the beach on Sullivan's Island on Monday, July 22, 2019. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Frontier Logistics and the State Ports Authority hired the cleanup crew immediately after the discovery at the beach, but until the violation notice was disclosed Thursday, few details had been publicized and no one was held responsible.

Frontier Logistics did not respond when asked to comment.

People who saw the Sullivan's Island spill soon after it washed up described it as strewn down the beach and thicker toward the harbor end.

Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

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