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SC environmentalists worry advanced recycling bill would allow new industry without safeguards

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DHEC contractors removing the debris pile at Able Contracting in Okatie in September 2019. Some lawmakers worry a bill that would make it easier to build plastic melting facilities in South Carolina could lead to similar environmental disasters. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

COLUMBIA — A bill in the state Senate would potentially pave the way for "advanced recycling" facilities to come to South Carolina by removing some regulations that are applied to other trash handlers. 

Supporters say the bill would bolster a still-novel plastic melting industry that may convert garbage into something useful. The industry claims the process, called pyrolysis, is a closed loop that emits few pollutants. 

But environmental advocates and some lawmakers have deep concerns about the legislation. It would remove the need for these facilities to carry a bond that would be used to pay for cleanup in the case of an environmental catastrophe — a requirement for solid waste handlers. It's necessary, they say, in case plastic catches fire at a facility, or an operator can't financially sustain the process and abandons a site.

South Carolina has waived some of its solid waste rules before, in particular in the case of Able Contracting, a company with a Jasper County site that handled construction and demolition waste. The site amassed a rubbish pile so big it was dubbed "Mount Trashmore," which eventually combusted and sent toxic smoke hovering over its neighbors. The state was left with the $4.5 million cleanup bill.

That's the kind of scenario state Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, worries about if these new companies are not required to carry a bond. 

"We've been burned before by industries we welcomed, and it was always into rural communities," Senn said. "We welcome them there so they can provide jobs, and then we have these awful incidents and the state was left holding the bag."

Senn and Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, have both contested the bill.

"It's incumbent on us not to rush into anything too fast," McElveen said. "We should all be concerned with things like … the quality of air that we breathe and the quality of water that we drink."

Sponsors of the legislation counter that pyrolysis operators are really manufacturers because the facilities are breaking down the plastics to make them into something new.

Nine other states have passed similar laws already, according to plastics industry group American Chemistry Council. The ACC is also employing three lobbyists in South Carolina, according to the S.C. Ethics Commission. 

"It expands on South Carolina's manufacturing climate," said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. "I understand what (critics) are saying, but this really isn't a solid waste issue."

Trusting the process

During pyrolysis, plastics are melted, vaporized into a gas and then distilled into a liquid that can be used to make more plastics, waxes or lubricants. Because the process happens without oxygen, the material doesn't burn. 

There are relatively few facilities around the country doing pyrolysis, but the closest one to South Carolina is the Nexus Fuels plant just outside Atlanta. Nexus says on its website the process produces a "pyrolysis oil," and announced a new agreement at the beginning of January to send that liquid to plastic maker Chevron Phillips Chemical. 

Craig Cookson, director of recycling and sustainability at the ACC, said it's not fair to compare plastic melting companies to waste handlers. 

Cookson argued that there are protections for the state in the bill, including regular inspections from the S.C. Department of Environmental Control and a reversion to the rules applied to solid waste companies if a pyrolysis operation doesn't work through its plastic supply quickly enough. 

"The plastics in South Carolina could feed four of these facilities," he said, and potentially improve on the state's plastic recycling rate. About 5 percent of all recyclables in the state are plastics, according to a 2019 DHEC report.

But environmental advocates like the Coastal Conservation League and Upstate Forever argue that because there are relatively few of these facilities operating, it's still not clear that a new one in South Carolina would remain financially viable in the long term. The state already has regulations in place for pyrolysis facilities to operate, but DHEC has never received and actual permit application, a spokeswoman for the agency said.

Cookson said the process has value, in part, because many companies want recycled material to be part of their packaging. Shelley Robbins, of Upstate Forever, was skeptical, especially because the ingredients for virgin plastics are already a by-product of petroleum processing.

"I don't trust the economics of the process, and I fear that we will be left with a mess in South Carolina," Robbins said.

Potential compromise

Massey said he's willing to listen to some proposals to compromise, like an idea from Senn to make these recyclers carry a $1 million bond.

But he insisted most opposition was about eliminating plastic entirely, and said he wouldn't be "blackmailed by people who just don't want to have plastic because I just don't think it’s a realistic scenario."

Sen. Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville, is another bill sponsor who says it's a worthy goal to recycle more plastic. Presented with the past cases that opponents bring up — at the Able "Mount Trashmore" site, or the thousands of tires amassed by a separate recycler in Berkeley County — Loftis said he's still not concerned. 

"The examples you've given me I do understand, but you’re not going to have this plastic laying out and littering up the place," he said. "I can't conceive of that if it (the plastic for processing) needs to be a clean product."

Of concerns from the environmental community, he said, "Chicken Little said the sky was falling, too."

The bill, S. 525, has passed out of committee in the Senate, but won't be brought to the floor without a special order because Senn and McElveen have contested it. 

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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