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

SULLIVAN'S ISLAND — Work crews — sometimes crawling on their stomachs — have been combing the beach since Saturday cleaning up a large spill of tiny plastic "nurdles" considered toxic.

The recovery was quickly put together by the State Ports Authority and a plastic pellet packager following a Friday report by The Post and Courier that a spread of the plastic pollution had washed up on the island's beach.

The pellets resemble tiny fish eggs. They are strewn in clusters along the high water line at the west end of the island toward Fort Moultrie and Charleston Harbor.

The plastic, called nurdles, is the raw material used to make virtually every commercial plastic item in the market. They are a toxic petroleum product that can poison or clog the guts of marine animals. They resemble tiny beads.

Lori Kern, a former South Carolina resident on vacation at the beach, said two-person crews were scooping with plastic bags, occasionally down on their stomachs as they moved along. The pellets are milky clear and difficult to spot in the beach material and shells.

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A tiny plastic "nurdle" on Sullivan's Island on Monday, July 22, 2019. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Just how much has been spilled isn't publicly known.

The cleanup was launched while the Coast Guard and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control continues to try to pinpoint the source of the spill, according to Coast Guard Lt. Jg. Phillip Vanderweitt. 

State Ports Authority officials described the cleanup as mitigation from an incident, but when asked, said no one specific incident led to the pollution.

Barbara Melvin, chief operating officer, said the authority is working with Frontier Logistics — the packager — to revamp how the company operates its temporary warehouse space at Union Pier Terminal on the Charleston peninsula.

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

"We are cooperating with all parties — including DHEC, Frontier Logistics, regulatory agencies, environmental groups and the town of Sullivan’s Island — on the investigation and remediation efforts," Melvin said.

"We had a fruitful meeting (with Frontier) this morning to discuss operational changes to help prevent future issues, and the Port will continue to review best practices for the tenant — all in an effort to ensure this never happens again,” she said.


A tiny plastic "nurdle" on Sullivan's Island on Monday, July 22, 2019. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Frontier Logistics did not respond when asked for comment.

On Sullivan's Island, Deputy Administrator Jason Blanton said the town was pleased that the cleanup began so quickly.

"This will be a slow cleanup. I plan to check the beach each morning this week. Hopefully, by the end of the week, the pellets will be cleaned up," he said.

Residents and beachgoers were encouraged to contact Town Hall at 843-883-5743 as they spot nurdles.

No incidents of the pellets showing up elsewhere on Charleston beaches were reported as of Monday.

Science Alert, an international publisher of peer-reviewed research, said as many as 53 billion nurdles are released annually in the United Kingdom alone from the plastic industry. That's enough to make 88 million plastic bottles.

"Mismanagement of these little pellets during transport and processing leads to billions being unintentionally released into rivers and oceans through effluent pipes, blown from land or industrial spillage," the report said.

The nurdles can be so noxious that people cleaning them up are advised to wear gloves.

The spill comes as pellet businesses become more of a presence at the Charleston port. The port last year exported more than 32,000 cargo containers of the pellets — roughly 7 percent of the U.S. market share.

Exports through the first four months of this year are up 30 percent over the same period in 2018.

Frontier, which packages plastic pellets made by industry giant Chevron Phillips Chemical, broke ground in June on a 550,000-square-foot distribution center on 26 acres at the former Navy base in North Charleston. The site will consolidate several smaller facilities Frontier has operated in the region since 2011.

Frontier is one of at least three nurdle businesses that have moved to the Charleston port recently because of congestion in the Gulf of Mexico ports where they have operated, The Post and Courier has reported.

David Wren contributed to this report.

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