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

It was gratifying to see state Sen. Sandy Senn call on the Department of Health and Environmental Control to name the company responsible for a spill of plastic pellets that washed up on Sullivan’s Island. The company should pay for the cleanup too.

The state Ports Authority and a local pellet-shipping company, Frontier Logistics, hired cleanup crews after the tiny pellets started showing up on the beach in mid-July, reportedly in higher concentrations nearer the harbor.

“Right now, we are in the unenviable position of saying ‘thank you’ to a company for voluntarily cleaning up our beach when that entity may actually have caused the environmental insult,” Senn wrote in a letter to DHEC, which is investigating the spill. “At some point, it will not satisfy the general public or me if the culprit does not officially accept responsibility or be charged.”

Texas-based Frontier shifted much of its plastic-bead exporting business from the Houston area to North Charleston earlier this year, but has yet to say whether the pellets are theirs. At least two other companies export plastic pellets via the Port of Charleston.

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The pellets, called nurdles, are the basic building block of many products in our increasingly plastic world. But because they’re tiny — about 10 can fit on a penny — and almost indistinguishable from fish eggs, they’re also a threat to marine life. In addition to clogging up the guts of sea creatures, they absorb and concentrate toxins. And they’re a problem worldwide. About 250,000 tons per year are believed to be spilled into oceans.

Sen. Senn, R-Charleston, told The Post and Courier’s Bo Petersen she thinks someone knows how the spill happened, “and certainly we need to put measures in place to see it doesn’t happen again.”

She’s right. With the port handling more nurdle exports, we need to make sure they’re properly packaged. And if the packaging is insufficient, those standards should be changed. Ideally, the pellets should be packaged so they remain in recoverable clumps even if a shipping container breaks open. And the public should know who is responsible if a spill occurs.

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