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SC plastic pellet mover faces federal lawsuit over Charleston-area beach spills

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nurdles collection.jpg (copy) (copy)

A sample of plastic nurdles found and collected by Andrew Wunderley, executive director for Charleston Waterkeeper, along the shore at Seabreeze Marina during a spot check of the location Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019, in Charleston. file/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Environmental groups have filed a federal lawsuit over thousands of pieces of plastic pellet pollution that washed up on Sullivan's Island beaches last summer, saying a company that transports the resins violated federal law. 

The Coastal Conservation League and Charleston Waterkeeper argue in a Wednesday filing that Frontier Logistics, which moves the plastic pieces known as "nurdles," has both contributed to past pollution and is continuing to let plastics escape into the environment.

Attorneys from the Southern Environmental Law Center filed the case at the U.S. District Court in Charleston. 

Waterkeeper has launched a program to sample for pellets around stream banks, beaches and other places they might wash up from Charleston Harbor. The court filing says more than 14,000 pieces of plastic have been found since last summer when the first spill was detected on Sullivan's Island. 

Paul Heard, vice president and general counsel for Frontier, declined to comment on the suit because he had not yet reviewed it.

In the past, Frontier has rebutted environmentalists' claims that they are the definitive source of recent spills, saying the pellets found can't be traced back to them and that some of the pieces found don't match the materials they handle. 

Waterkeeper, a water-quality watchdog, has stressed that Frontier is the only plastics mover to operate at a facility overhanging water, at the Port of Charleston's Union Pier Terminal.

The suit also says the group has found pellets around Frontier's facility and the rail lines it uses to ship the plastics. 

“We’ve got a lot of evidence that nurdles are still out there, the pollution is ongoing, and we just cannot delay in pursuing enforcement action,” said Andrew Wunderley, of the Waterkeeper group. “It’s a danger to our health of our waterways and our wildlife that we just can’t abide any longer.”

The nurdles first came to public attention in July, when hundreds of the resin fragments washed up on Sullivan's Island. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control initially cited Frontier for potentially causing the spill but later closed the case without punishment.

The pieces of plastic are a base material that companies overseas mold into consumer products and packaging, and they represent a growth opportunity for the Port of Charleston, which can use the plastics as exports to fill shipping containers that arrive with imports. 

But once they escape into the environment, the rice-grain-sized pieces are difficult to control. Plaintiffs in the suit have not asked for a specific amount of damages but did ask that civil fines of up to $55,800 per day are applied if the court finds Frontier responsible for the escaped nurdles. 

It's unclear at this point whether the case might face disruptions as public health measures to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus limit in-person gatherings. If the case reaches trial down the line, it may not require a jury, said Catherine Wannamaker, the Law Center attorney handling the case. 

"I would hope this crisis is over before we even got to that phase," she said. 

Frontier will likely get an extension in their time to respond according to guidelines for federal courts in South Carolina, Wannamaker said. But she stressed that the situation was changing rapidly, and it would be hard to predict what could happen over the course of the case. 

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

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