Charleston is gaining critical mass as an exporter of plastic pellets known as nurdles — the versatile building blocks of all things plastic. And despite the pollution problems they can cause, nurdles are a booming business mostly because of a glut of oil and natural gas, of which they are made, and their low prices.
The pellets also are a growing revenue source for the State Ports Authority’s business, which means it’s a growing concern for environmentalists.
Braskem Americas, a Brazilian petrochemical firm, recently decided to move into an under-construction 550,000-square-foot warehouse in North Charleston, along with Frontier Logistics of Houston, which has been exporting nurdles out of Charleston for about two years and is believed responsible for at least one spill that fouled the harbor and area beaches with tiny plastic pellets — pellets so small is takes about 20,000 of them to make a pound.
Birds, fish and all manner of marine life mistake them for food. The pellets become toxic magnets, and no one really knows the full effects of introducing more and more plastic into the food chain.
A plastics industry group, Operation Clean Sweep, has been trying to prevent spills for years but evidently has failed. Worldwide, a mind-boggling 250,000 tons of pellets are spilled into our oceans every year.
Thankfully, the Southern Environmental Law Center is fighting to hold Frontier responsible for the local spill discovered last summer and ongoing operations. Unfortunately, COVID-19 shutdowns derailed state Sen. Sandy Senn’s legislation that would have at least defined nurdles as pollution. They’re pretty much unregulated here.
And all the while, the SPA is trying to recruit more nurdle shipping companies. CEO Jim Newsome told reporter David Wren he hoped to capture half of the market of Gulf Coast exporters shifting their operations to the East Coast, and he predicted that about 100,000 shipping containers of nurdles would move through Southeastern ports by 2023.
We understand that Mr. Newsome’s job is to grow SPA business, and he’s been very successful at it. And while economic success obviously is important, it should not come at the expense of the environment.
There’s a good economic argument that setting up strict regulations to prevent spills would be cheaper than trying to clean up after the fact, which is almost impossible. And there’s a good argument that recruiting more nurdle exporters will increase the likelihood of more spills here.
Braskem boasts of being the largest nurdle producer in the Americas. The warehouse in North Charleston is expected to begin operations in October.
Charleston Waterkeeper Andrew Wunderley says volunteers continue to pick up nurdles around Charleston, some weathered and old, others shiny and new. It’s unclear if they’re all from just one spill or several. Nurdles can be traced to their makers, but producers are loath to disclose chemical formulations — trade secrets — that would allow regulators to easily identify polluters.
The Charleston region is all about water, and even if the nurdles don’t end up in the ocean, they’re likely to spill on land, get blown into ditches or run into creeks. Frontier has been exporting from Charleston Harbor for only about two years, and already the concentration of nurdles found here rivals those along the Gulf Coast.
Lawmakers need to get to work on regulating nurdles, and DHEC has to get tougher with companies that spill them. The despoliation of our coastal waters is too high of a price for new business.