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Commentary: Sullivan's Island fighting a different kind of plastic pollution

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

Sullivan’s Island’s beaches have a new threat: tiny plastic pellets.

They are hard to see, but once you adjust your eyes and know what you are looking for, you quickly realize Sullivan’s Island beaches are covered by the unnatural plastic beads.

Sullivan’s Island, like many communities on the Cooper River and Charleston Harbor, has become an unwilling depository for tiny plastic pollution. Since July, Charleston Waterkeeper Andrew Wunderley, his staff and his volunteers have found thousands of these plastic pellets washed ashore on Sullivan’s Island, Folly Beach, James Island, Mount Pleasant, North Charleston and Charleston. Unfortunately, they seem to be everywhere on the coastal plain.

Jace Tunnell, a national expert on these man-made pellets — called “nurdles” by the plastics industry — says Charleston has the highest concentration of pellet pollution of any area outside of the Texas coast, an area brimming with plastics factories. Tunnell is the director for the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve. He runs a website called

Exactly who is responsible for this local pollution is a bit of a controversy, with limited corrective action or help from state and local governments.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control sent a notice of alleged violation of the state Pollution Control Act to Frontier Logistics, a waterfront facility that accepts pellets from factories and then packages them for oceangoing cargo ships. The waterkeeper, with the help of the Southern Environmental Law Center, has put Frontier on notice that a lawsuit is coming if the pollution doesn’t stop.

DHEC found Frontier’s facility awash in spilled pellets, but Frontier denies responsibility for the ongoing pollution.

This much is certain: At least one local company is responsible, and maybe more than one company. Wunderley is prepared to tell Sullivan’s Island Town Council on Tuesday that the evidence shows the pellet pollution is an ongoing problem, not a one-time accident.

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To help maintain beach integrity and beauty, we on Sullivan’s Island Town Council have worked hard to reduce pollution. This year, Town Council has banned the kinds of single-use plastics responsible for much beach pollution, and we are working to ban another source of ubiquitous litter: cigarette butts.

Currently, Sullivan’s Islanders have no control over these pellets and the corporations that litter them.

After the spill, Sullivan’s Island citizens were promised cleanup crews would remove the pellets from our beaches, and Frontier voluntarily helped with the effort. This short-term effort was abandoned in August, and the cleanup crews quit coming. Unfortunately, the pellets continue to wash ashore.

Although DHEC found Frontier responsible for the majority of the July spill, no penalty was levied. That is both surprising and unfortunate, and hopefully not a harbinger of a hands-off regulatory attitude on a growing industry.

The State Ports Authority says the state’s plastic nurdle industry is an expanding source of investment, but these man-made pellets aren’t supposed to end up in the Cooper River or Charleston Harbor. I think we can all agree that no private company should profit at the expense of our beaches and waterways.

I appreciate the waterkeeper’s efforts to document this pollution and to hold to account those responsible. The citizens and leaders on Sullivan’s Island work too hard to keep our community clean, and we can’t just sit idle while someone else carelessly destroys it.

Sarah Church is a member of Sullivan’s Island Town Council.

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