NORTH CHARLESTON — Wanda O. Harris winces every time she thinks about the air her daughter breathes.
For years, diesel-powered trucks have released toxic smoke near their home along Interstate 26. A few miles away, international cargo ships have discharged soot while navigating the Cooper River.
And on more days than Harris likes to remember, her daughter, now 16, has wheezed and coughed and gasped for breath — a victim of asthma, a condition aggravated by air pollution.
“I feel bad for her all the time, every day,” Harris said.
Now, thousands of extra trucks and hundreds of ships are on the way, thanks to what environmentalists and some doctors say is a premature decision by South Carolina’s environmental protection agency.
Under pressure to authorize a $900 million port expansion, the Department of Health and Environmental Control approved permits in late 2006 and early 2007, allowing construction to begin — before receiving the results of three major air pollution studies.
DHEC says it had enough information and wasn’t required by law to wait.
But environmentalists and some doctors and lawmakers say the agency should have taken extra care with a project so large in a city with increasing air-quality problems.
Conservationist Dana Beach said DHEC’s decision to approve permits first — without results from the studies — is backward.
“The DHEC protocol is ready, fire, aim,” said Beach, director of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. “They were getting a lot of political pressure. So they issued the permits first, without evidence to justify them. Then, the studies are done.”
If the state had seen the studies before issuing the permits, it might have written the permits in a way to force tighter controls, conservationists say.
The studies in question are a federal environmental impact statement — a sweeping report on the project’s potential effect on air and water — and two studies showing the level of air pollution from existing port and industrial activities.
The site, at the city’s former Navy base, would be home to Charleston’s sixth Ports Authority terminal. As many as 1,300 more ships are expected each year. And 7,000 to 10,000 additional car and truck trips are expected to dump substantially more traffic from an access road onto busy I-26.
DHEC has a voluntary agreement with the State Ports Authority, which manages the port, that both agencies say will help clean up the air. But environmentalists question why those points weren’t written into permits the agency can enforce.
The 4,000-member Conservation League is suing DHEC in state court. An initial filing was thrown out recently on a technicality; the group is appealing. The Conservation League said the port’s expansion will push Charleston out of compliance with federal air standards and violate state water quality rules.
For many, air is the greater concern.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency recently tightened the standard for ground-level ozone, or smog, to a level that could put Charleston out of compliance with clean air rules, making it difficult for industries to expand. Last spring, top DHEC air regulator Myra Reece warned the agency’s board about the potential problem. There also are increasing concerns about soot. Both can trigger asthma attacks.
Charleston County’s legislative delegation met with DHEC officials last month to talk about the city’s air quality. The new terminal was part of the discussion.
“We all want to have economic development, but if we don’t have clean air, the rest of it is sort of a moot point,” state Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, said afterward.
Since that meeting, DHEC has announced the formation of a “clean air coalition,’’ composed of environmental groups, doctors and local residents. Its mission is to discuss air quality concerns in the Charleston area.
Even so, residents living near the new port site remain worried air quality may deteriorate. Just this month, some residents of the Howard Heights neighborhood, not far from the new terminal site, renewed a call for the city or state to buy their property, saying they have breathed polluted air for too long.
During a visit last summer to Harris’ neighborhood, the Conservation League’s Nancy Vinson measured tiny grains of soot in the air using a hand-held monitor.
She said the levels of airborne soot near Harris’ home were higher than any she had recorded in the Charleston area. The monitor isn’t as accurate as stationary monitors DHEC uses in other parts of Charleston, but Vinson said it provides an idea of the problem.
Before issuing the port permits, “DHEC never looked at where the most polluted places might be to see if those people are getting clobbered by air pollution,” Vinson said. “If you’re not looking, you can’t find as much.”
DHEC has launched studies in several neighborhoods to learn more.
Harris worries that her daughter and others will suffer in the name of economic progress. Their small, neat home is hemmed in by I-26, the Mark Clark Expressway and Rivers Avenue, a major North Charleston thoroughfare. Their house is within four miles of an existing Cooper River terminal and about five miles from the new one.
On a steamy day in June, Harris and her daughter, Ashley Linen, sat in their living room and recounted how difficult it has been at times for the girl to keep up with her friends or stay in shape.
“I do exercise, but I don’t too much,” Ashley said. “I can’t really run too much. It makes me short of breath. It does get frustrating at times.”
Harris said doctors for years were unable to diagnose Ashley’s problem properly. Most said she had allergies, emphysema or bronchitis. Then, one day after playing with friends, Ashley burst into the house, scared and straining to breathe. She was 8 years old.
“I said, ‘Something is wrong with this child,’” Harris said. She said she took Ashley to another doctor who finally got the diagnosis right. “The doctor said, ‘This child has asthma — her lungs are flooded. I don’t know why she’s not dead.’”
That eventually led Harris to Michael Bowman, one of only a handful of childhood lung specialists in South Carolina.
Bowman, a doctor at Charleston’s Medical University of South Carolina, said Ashley is responding well to medications. But she could suffer if smoke from ships’ thick bunker fuel worsens the quality of air near her home, he said.
“It certainly will not help things,” Bowman said. “It looks like the ships wind up potentially pumping out a whole lot of air pollution.”
Harris wants to know more.
“They should have done these studies long before now,” she said of DHEC. “They don’t care. I’m being honest with you. They just don’t care.”
Nancy Button, who lives even closer to the terminal site, said the expansion will only make life miserable for her community.
The terminal will be 1.2 miles from her Doscher Avenue house. A ramp for the access road will be two blocks away.
“I just feel like we are on our own,” said Button, 55. “There’s just no way we can handle 10,000 trucks per day through this community.”
Some environmental groups, including the Conservation League, would prefer the state build a terminal in rural Jasper County rather than expand in congested, traffic-clogged North Charleston. But others say the North Charleston expansion needs to be done first.
Industrial leaders have long said that to remain competitive, the port needs room for more large container ships. They note that, in recent years, the port’s container business has slipped.
More than 700 state businesses rely on the port, the nation’s sixth-largest by cargo value.
A distribution hub planned for Orangeburg County also will bring goods through the port. The project, backed by a Dubai company, could bring 6,000 jobs.
Plans for a terminal on Daniel Island, between Charleston and Mount Pleasant, failed in the late 1990s. That increased the urgency among business leaders to turn to the replacement site on the former Navy base.
Records show DHEC was well aware of economic arguments for the expansion — and its top official was eager for his staff to make a decision on the permits.
In late 2006, commissioner Earl Hunter called staffers several times about the permits’ status, according to e-mails written by a deputy.
“The commissioner is under lots of pressure to get this completely out of DHEC by the end of the week,” agency coastal division director Carolyn Boltin wrote in an Oct. 12, 2006, e-mail to her staff. “He asked that we do as much as we can ... and be ready to make this (a) high priority.”
On Oct. 30, 2006, less than three weeks after Boltin’s e-mails, DHEC issued environmental permits for the terminal. Two weeks later, it granted permits for the access road. In early 2007, the DHEC board upheld the staff’s decisions after hearing appeals.
One of DHEC’s reasons for approving the project was business-related. The new terminal “is needed for the region to remain competitive in the global economy,’’ according to a DHEC staff assessment.
Hunter said he called Boltin because he got a call from the Ports Authority. Ports officials said they had given DHEC all the information needed to process the permits and wanted to know when they might be approved, he said.
“I said ‘Carolyn, here’s the scenario as they laid it out to us. Can you check into it and find out what’s going on?’” Hunter told The State.
Ports Authority spokesman Byron Miller said authority director Bernie Groseclose called Hunter. But Miller noted Boltin’s e-mail also included references to interest on the part of the state Department of Transportation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Barbara Neale, regulatory director of DHEC’s coastal division, declined comment on why her division OK’d the permits before the air studies were done. She said the Conservation League’s suit prevented her from talking.
Reece, DHEC’s air division chief, said the voluntary agreement her agency struck with the Ports Authority will address many of the concerns. The deal calls for cleaner-burning equipment, among other things. “The commitment to reduce those emissions from the ports has really gotten stronger,” Reece said.
But state Rep. Robert Brown, D-Charleston, is skeptical about the deal and why more study wasn’t done before permits were approved.
“Air pollution studies should have been conducted before they issued these permits,’’ he said.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
Like the Conservation League, S.C. doctors are concerned about the air around Charleston’s terminals, particularly in neighborhoods.
In July, the S.C. Medical Association passed a resolution asking DHEC to find out more about Charleston’s air quality before the terminal opens.
“I understand there was probably enormous economic and competitive pressure” to approve the environmental permits, said Edward Wilson, a doctor, member of the state association and president of the Charleston County Medical Society. “But, ideally, DHEC would have been more attuned and had all the right data prior to” issuing permits.
One study environmentalists say should have been done has only been launched this year.
That will show how toxic soot now affects neighborhoods near the proposed terminal and the I-26 access road. DHEC is installing five monitors at neighborhoods near industrial plants and the terminals.
So far, the monitors show air pollution levels don’t exceed federal standards in those areas. But the amount of soot in the air is higher there than farther south, along the Ashley River near The Citadel campus, where DHEC has monitored air for several years.
Another is an air emissions inventory, a look at how existing pollution affects the area. In September, the Ports Authority released the report, which showed that tons of dangerous pollutants were pumped into the air in 2005.
Traffic at existing port terminals released more poisonous soot, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides than some of the area’s biggest industrial plants, according to DHEC records and the newly released emissions report.
Another report, released about a month after DHEC’s staff issued permits, raised similar questions.
The December 2006 federal environmental impact statement indicates soot pollution will exceed federal clean air standards after the terminal is built. That finding is significant, environmentalists say, because the statement is usually the most comprehensive study of a project’s effect on the landscape.
DHEC’s Reece said the data in the statement isn’t enough to conclude that Charleston will violate air-quality standards for soot. That would require more study, she said.
Still, if DHEC had any of the information in the three studies before deciding on permits, it might have decided to force tougher pollution controls on the port during the permitting process, as other states have done — or even deny the project, environmentalists said. California, for instance, next year will require ocean-going ships to switch to cleaner-burning fuel as they near ports such as Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Environmentalists said DHEC also could have pushed for more rail access to ease air pollution and traffic congestion.
Mount Pleasant doctor Bill Prioleau, a semi-retired cardiovascular surgeon, runs a free blood-pressure clinic in Charleston. He suspects some of his patients’ heart and lung conditions have been worsened by fine grains of soot. And the port won’t help, he said.
“Take someone who is not in great shape — this tips them over for a heart attack,” Prioleau said. “This is a lethal problem.”
Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537. Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.