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Editorial: Preserve Charleston Harbor's environment

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PRINT nurdles_1.jpg (copy)

Andrew Wunderley of Charleston Waterkeeper inspects some plastic foam that washed up on Sullivan's Island last week. Gavin McIntyre/ Staff

More plastic pollution turned up on Sullivan’s Island recently: not hard plastic beads called “nurdles” this time but foam pellets that washed up in the wrack line along the harbor-facing beach near Station 12 and Fort Moultrie. The stuff could have come from a burst bean bag chair or something similar on the beach or in the water. We may never know.

What we do know is that just about anything floating in Charleston Harbor eventually washes up on Sullivan’s Island or Folly Beach, and that the State Ports Authority and others must do a better job of policing the harbor and protecting the beaches, two of the biggest magnets that drive tourism in the Lowcountry.

We understand the SPA benefits the entire state, that its economic impact of more than $60 billion annually is tied to 1 in 10 jobs statewide. That is important. But it operates mostly out of Charleston Harbor, and it must do its part to protect the rest of the regional economy.

Rather than taking the lead on protecting the harbor and its environs, the SPA is vying to become a major East Coast nurdle exporter. For years, it has fought efforts to reduce diesel emissions from cruise ships and efforts to move the terminal farther from the historic district. It also has opposed the city charging a “head tax” on cruise passengers to help pay for flooding fixes, among other things. The under-construction Hugh Leatherman terminal might have been built on Daniel Island if it weren’t for widespread opposition from environmentalists and eventually the governor’s office.

The Ports Authority deserves praise for contributing to the planned renourishment of Crab Bank and for working to reduce emissions from diesel trucks and cargo-handling equipment. But it needs to do more to preserve the health of the harbor — even if the pollution has no connection to port operations.

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Nature is incredibly resilient. For more than 300 years since the city’s founding, the natural systems that make up and surround Charleston Harbor have remained more or less intact. But that’s not something we can take for granted. Bacteria counts in Shem Creek and James Island Creek regularly exceed state standards. Oyster beds have been depleted, as have fisheries and seabird colonies.

As Charleston Waterkeeper Andrew Wunderley sees it, the health of Charleston Harbor is better off than some industrialized commercial ports, but it is also “on the brink” of having some serious environmental problems if we all don’t pay closer attention to the signs of degradation, like the foam pellets that recently washed up.

No, a bean bag chair full of plastic foam won’t ruin the harbor, and we’re certainly not blaming the SPA for it. The spill is just another straw on the camel’s back, like the nurdles that started washing up last summer.

Charlestonians have long supported port operations and want the port to stay competitive and to do well. But that prosperity cannot come at a cost to the environment and the tourism industry. The SPA and other local industries, as well as residents, should all do their part.

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