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Editorial: Reject plan to let 'advanced recyclers' bypass SC safety requirements

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The last time the Legislature made exceptions to help some waste handlers open, Able Contracting in Jasper County allowed waste to pile up almost 60 feet, and the weight caused the debris to combust, releasing toxic fumes and forcing nearby businesses and residents to evacuate. DHEC is asking lawmakers for $4.5 million to clean up the site. Lauren Petracca/Staff

For decades, South Carolina opened its arms to the nation’s waste. We buried out-of-state nuclear waste at Barnwell and hazardous chemical waste at Pineville on the shores of Lake Marion. We imported hazardous waste to burn in incinerators in Spartanburg and York counties and medical waste to burn in an infectious waste incinerator in Hampton County. We still bury New York’s municipal waste in a towering landfill in Lee County.

It might have made sense to dispose of the nation’s waste in return for the jobs those facilities generated and the taxes they paid — if not for fact that the buried waste seems inevitably to leak into our water, and the burned waste pollutes the air we breathe. Oh, and the fact that the waste operators tend to go bankrupt, and leave the taxpayers of South Carolina paying to clean up the mess they left behind.

But we did have those problems, and they finally awakened state policymakers, who worked for decades to close the facilities or at least, in the case of the Barnwell repository, close them to most of the nation. It took so long in part because the federal courts consider garbage “interstate commerce,” which the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from regulating. That means we can’t charge extra fees for out-of-state waste. So, we learned, the only way we can keep waste companies from importing other people’s trash into our state is by limiting how much trash can be buried or burned here.

That’s why we were so pleasantly surprised last week when a House subcommittee quickly rejected a provision in H.3753 that would have blown a hole through the limit on how much waste a company can incinerate in South Carolina — increasing the current 600 tons per day by a factor of eight, to 5,000 tons.

Unfortunately, that’s not the only effort in the Legislature to get South Carolina back into the big-time trash business. On Thursday, the Senate Medical Affairs Committee approved a bill that would remove the guardrails we have erected to protect taxpayers and the environment from the problems that so many waste companies run into.

The bill would make it easier for companies to melt plastic trash to turn it into new products and fuel, by changing the classification of pyrolysis and gasification — along with processes such as “solvolysis” that even many experts have never heard of — from recycling to a new category called “advanced recycling.” Under S.525, as well as the part of H.3753 that is still alive, advanced recycling companies wouldn’t have to put up a bond like waste handlers do to cover any cleanup costs if they have accidents or go out of business. And they wouldn’t have to demonstrate that there’s a need for their facilities to handle S.C. waste.

As Sen. Sandy Senn explained in her newsletter: “The goal of the manufacturer is to attempt to take plastic garbage and create jet fuel or crayons (yes it was a pretty wide array of stuff they hoped to manufacture, but they had no clear plan). They claim they will bring high paying jobs and invest potentially billions, but they wanted relaxed regulations and no bond.”

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Officials with the American Chemistry Council — a lobbying group for the “advanced recycling” industry — testified at a hearing last week that these businesses should be considered manufacturers, not waste disposers, and so should be no more subject to financial assurances to do business in South Carolina than Boeing or BMW.

That argument makes sense to a lot of senators, but it only works if you ignore the fact that the raw materials for the manufacturing are what the rest of us call trash — and that one of the biggest arguments for pyrolysis and gasification is that they’re a great way to turn trash into energy and raw materials for new products.

Do these so-called advanced recycling experiments hold promise? Absolutely. The Wall Street Journal provided useful perspective in an article last week titled, “How to transform garbage into greener fuels.” The opening paragraph: “For centuries, people have burned waste to create energy, sending carbon billowing into the atmosphere. Transforming garbage into clean fuel, however, was an alchemy confined to fiction, like the movie ‘Back to the Future.’ Now, a handful of companies want to turn household trash into low-emissions fuels for planes, trains and trucks.”

But as that largely sympathetic article made clear, it’s all still experimental. And as South Carolina’s environmental protection organizations remind us, the plastic that companies would use and be allowed to store on site in huge quantities is highly flammable — and has produced some tremendous fires in South Carolina and across the nation.

And none of the supporters of the legislation has managed to answer the question posed by the Coastal Conservation League’s Betsy La Force: “If the chemical recycling industry is sound and the business models are successful, why aren’t they willing to operate under our existing laws?”

House members were wise to reject the invitation to large-scale incineration companies to ship out-of-state waste into South Carolina to fuel their businesses. Senators would be wise to reject attempts to eliminate the protections against waste accidents that our state put in place as a result of painful and expensive experience.

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