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Editorial: Cooperation's great, but SC needs nurdle law to protect coast, marine life

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A sample of plastic nurdles collected by Andrew Wunderley of Charleston Waterkeeper along the shore at Seabreeze Marina during a spot check on Dec. 17. file/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Facing lawsuits and pollution-related fines, U.S. plastic pellet producers, exporters and the international organization dedicated to reducing spills has begun a self-policing program that requires companies to report unrecovered “nurdle” spills as small as a pound and commits the industry to publicly reporting annual spill totals.

That’s good news, especially as the S.C. State Ports Authority works to lure more exporters from the Gulf Coast to Charleston, which has seen the tiny preproduction pellets wash up on shore in and around the harbor since July.

But the state and local governments can’t depend entirely on the industry to police itself. That’s how we got to where we are, with an estimated 250,000 tons of pellets entering oceans annually.

While nurdle pollution is relatively new along our coast, concentrations found along beaches and waterways here rival those in the Houston area, according to Charleston Waterkeeper Andrew Wunderley, whose crews have picked up about 10,000 of the lentil-size dots, which can number 25,000 to a pound.

The tiny pellets act as magnets for poisons like DDT and PCBs, are mistaken for food by birds and marine life and rank as the second-biggest source of microplastic pollution in oceans behind even tinier particles like “microbeads,” which are used in cosmetics, and airborne “tire dust.”

That is why South Carolina, first, needs a law on the books that identifies nurdles as pollution — Charleston-area Sen. Sandy Senn has filed a bill to do just that — then a strict set of nurdle-handling rules that include regular inspections at all trans-loading points.

To its credit, the SPA recognizes that last summer’s accident wasn’t just bad for business, it was bad, period. “Everybody in this situation lost,” said SPA Chief Operating Officer Barbara Melvin, who said the SPA has stepped up its inspections. The risk of another local nurdle spill, she said, should drop dramatically once Frontier Logistics moves from Union Pier.

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After the July nurdle spill was noticed, Frontier, at the direction of the Department of Health and Environmental Control, put up some netting in work areas. But DHEC quickly closed the case without fining Frontier, and nurdles are still being moved from railcars to the over-the-water pier where they are packaged for overseas transportation.

Any spillage can be a problem, Mr. Wunderley said, because wind and rain eventually carry the tiny pellets into waterways even if spilled on land. In October, Charleston Waterkeeper, the Coastal Conservation League and the Southern Environmental Law Center put Frontier on notice by filing pollution claims under the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

In December, Texas-based Formosa Plastics agreed to pay $50 million settle a lawsuit over spills near Galveston.

South Carolina must get ahead of this menace. Nurdle exports are a growing business tied to the boom in natural gas, the main feedstock for virgin plastic.

We welcome the SPA’s stepped-up inspections and the move by the American Chemical Council and Plastics Industry Association to reduce spills and improve reporting standards. It’s new program is called OCS Blue, part of Operation Clean Sweep, which is a 25-year-old international organization dedicated to reducing nurdle spills. But it’s not enough for South Carolina to rely on voluntary industry-driven reforms.

State lawmakers should pass Sen. Senn’s bill, and DHEC should come up with a set of enforceable regulations, complete with regular inspections and fines for violations.

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