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Crews on the beach on Sullivan's Island inspect a spill of plastic nurdles on Monday, July 22, 2019. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Oil industry-related pollution has arrived in Charleston through a side door — in the form of tiny plastic pellets that recently started showing up on area beaches.

That should set off alarms, and it has. But the problem is bigger and wider than the oceans.

In 2001, the plastics industry created a multinational self-policing group, Operation Clean Sweep, to reduce the volume of tiny pre-production pellets released into the environment, but the problem has only gotten worse over time with nurdles washing up on local area beaches in July.

Now it’s time for the federal government to directly regulate the handling and shipping of the pellets.

Frontier Logistics, which recently moved part of its export business here from the Houston area, has been cited for the spill, which it helped clean up. Still, state regulators should come down hard on the violators, and S.C. lawmakers must consider their own legislation if Congress doesn’t act fast enough.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control held an initial enforcement conference Thursday. It could ask for fines up to $10,000 per day for ongoing violations. So far it’s unclear if the pellets got into the water only at the shipping terminal and rode the tides to the beaches or if the nurdles leaked from a container aboard a ship.

State Sen. Sandy Senn, who earlier urged DHEC to take action against Frontier, told Post and Courier reporter Bo Petersen “the only way to make sure they are more responsible for their product and our environment is to hit them in the pocketbook.”

A July 19 inspection of Frontier’s local operation found “numerous areas of concern, as plastic pellet accumulation was observed throughout the facility,” according to DHEC. At a July 23 follow-up, fewer loose nurdles were observed, and DHEC staffers recommended putting up netting in an area where railcars are unloaded. Frontier agreed to do it.

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The pellets are the basic building block for virtually all plastic products and number about 25,000 per pound. They are mistaken as food by birds and marine creatures and either clog up their guts or poison them because they tend to absorb and concentrate toxins. Like other pollutants, they eventually enter and contaminate the food chain.

Nurdles, produced from oil and natural gas, have caused considerable pollution along the Gulf Coast where their production is concentrated. But they’re new here, and Charlestonians shouldn’t stand for it.

An estimated 250,000 tons of nurdles are spilled annually worldwide. Obviously, Operation Clean Sweep hasn’t met its goal of “zero pellet, flake, powder loss.”

Bulk shipments need to be sealed in virtually indestructible packaging so that if a truck, railcar or shipping container breaks open or is lost at sea, the pellets can be recovered en masse. Federal regulators can at least ensure that U.S. shipments are leak-proof.

And if the feds don’t take action soon, S.C. legislators need to step in to protect our coast.

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