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SC plastic pellet spill lawsuit settled for $1 million

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nurdles collection.jpg (copy) (copy)

A sample of plastic nurdles found and collected by Andrew Wunderley, executive director of Charleston Waterkeeper, along the shore at Seabreeze Marina during a spot check of the location on Dec. 17, 2019, in Charleston. A company that transports plastic pellets has agreed to pay $1 million to settle a pollution lawsuit. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

A company that transports plastic pellets agreed to pay $1 million to settle a pollution lawsuit, almost two years after clusters of the tiny rice-sized nuggets were spotted on Charleston-area beaches.

The suit was filed after drifts of the tiny white "nurdles" washed up on Sullivan's Island in the summer of 2019. Plaintiffs Charleston Waterkeeper and the Coastal Conservation League argued pellet-mover Frontier Logistics was at fault for the spill. The Texas-based firm denied culpability.

Waterkeeper and CCL were represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, which filed the proposed settlement Wednesday morning. The settlement money, paid over four years, will be put into a fund to invest in water-quality efforts in Charleston Harbor. 

"It's a big win for clean water," said Andrew Wunderley, of Waterkeeper. "We're glad Frontier stepped up to the plate and is investing this money."

It's one of the largest payouts ever to settle a water-pollution case in South Carolina, though a separate suit over an Upstate gas pipeline spill settled for $1.5 million last year. Frontier will also pay the plaintiffs' legal fees of $225,000. 

Paul Heard, a vice president and general counsel at Frontier, declined to comment because he had not yet received a certified copy of the settlement back from the court. It was filed in federal court late Wednesday afternoon. District Judge David C. Norton will have to approve the settlement, which is expected.

Frontier was the likely culprit in the plastics spill, the plaintiffs said, because of the Union Pier facility it used to pack the plastic pellets stretched over the waters of Charleston Harbor. Frontier argued that the recovered nurdles couldn't be traced back to them, and has since moved its operations to an inland North Charleston depot. The company did not admit fault in the settlement.

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Frontier Logistics, a company that transports tiny plastic "nurdles," previously used this site at Union Pier Terminal. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Frontier also agreed to let an independent auditor inspect that site and take suggestions on how to make sure plastics don't escape.

"I think this settlement is the opportunity for Frontier's facility to be the gold standard for similar companies," said Laura Cantral, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.

The end of the lawsuit would also remove some potential legal jeopardy for the S.C. State Ports Authority.

SPA operates the Port of Charleston and helped Frontier pay for an initial cleanup on Sullivan's Island. It has said that plastics exports are a potential area of growth for the port, as refineries look for shipping options outside of the Gulf of Mexico.

SPA was not a defendant in the suit, but plaintiffs had tried to get documents related to the spill from the agency via discovery. SPA refused, and tried to argue in court it wasn't subject to that fact-finding process because it was a state agency. 

Before the settlement was reached, SPA could have been held in contempt by Norton for not providing the documents. A conference on whether the ports group should be censured was held in December, but the judge had not yet ruled. 

Nurdles are raw plastics that are molded into a bevy of consumer products and packaging. It's just one form of litter that ends up in Charleston Harbor — the estuary has an estimated 7½ tons of plastic trash floating in it. The debris ranges from plastic grocery sacks to particles that wear off of rubber tires. 

"Plastic pollution is a huge problem, and (pellets) are a component of that," Cantral said. 

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

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