Port says it is committed to reducing pollution

sfretwell@thestate.com, jmonk@thestate.comNovember 22, 2008 

  • Today’s findings

    DHEC approved permits allowing construction of a new port terminal in Charleston before seeing results of three major air pollution studies.

    Pollution from the increased ship and truck traffic is a concern. Federal officials recently tightened the standard for ground-level ozone, or smog, to a level that could put the city out of compliance with clean air rules, making it harder for industries to expand. There also are increasing concerns about soot. Both can trigger asthma attacks.

    Neighborhoods near the terminal could fare the worst.


    The federal government is issuing fines.

    The courts are issuing reprimands.

    And South Carolinians increasingly are critical of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

    Learn more about the agency’s failure to lead on some of the biggest health and environmental issues affecting South Carolina’s future.

    We’ll introduce you to six people involved with those issues who say the department has let them down.


    State regulators have given polluters breaks, withheld information from the public, pushed development over the protection of natural resources and angered residents from Greenville to Charleston. Has the agency that’s supposed to safeguard the environment and our health lost its way?


    Three years ago, Tom Wood, a widower, teacher and Navy veteran, moved to a remote spot in Marlboro County thinking he would live out his days in peace. That was before a waste company selected a site a few miles from his house for a proposed landfill that would take in up to 1.4 million tons of garbage a year, much of it from out of state. State regulations let companies build mega-landfills.


    Locked in a government storage room were the records Bob Guild needed to make his case against a leaking nuclear waste landfill. But when the Columbia lawyer asked to see them, he was given only a single folder. “I said, ‘Where is everything else?’ They said, ‘It’s all trade secrets,’” Guild recalled of his visit to state environmental control offices. Letting companies shield certain records from public view is wrong when people’s health and the environment are involved, Guild said.


    Most of his life, except when he was a soldier in Vietnam, Randy Stone ate fish he caught near his home about four times a week, a pound or two each time. But what Stone loves probably gave him mercury poisoning, his doctor said. There were no warning signs posted at the creeks where he fished. So he didn’t suspect anything was wrong until he got dizzy, his hair started falling out and he began to lose his memory. “This is something you can’t see and you can’t feel,” he said.


    Hilton Head Island Councilman John Safay says it’s a bad idea to build huge homes on erosion-scarred beaches. But more than anything, Safay is frustrated the Department of Health and Environmental Control is letting it happen. On Hilton Head, he hopes, it will stop. “It defies the imagination,” Safay said. “We had put our faith in these people to do the right thing.”


    Bud Fairey was fresh out of law school, and his aunt in Orangeburg needed his help. Ongoing underground pollution was keeping her from selling land she owned that was once home to an Exxon gas station. State regulators told her all underground fuel storage tanks had been removed. But Fairey found out regulators had taken Exxon’s word for it that the tanks were gone. In the end, Exxon paid $30 million to make the problem — and Fairey — go away.


    Four miles from Wanda Harris’ house is a Port of Charleston terminal where ships and trucks pick up and drop off goods. Five miles in another direction is where state regulators have OK’d construction of another port terminal, Charleston’s sixth. Harris and others aren’t happy with the state’s choice of a site. Environmentalists say the expected pollution could put the Holy City out of compliance with federal air quality regulations. Harris’ worries are more immediate: Her daughter Ashley has asthma.


    Five things you can do, five things lawmakers can do, five things DHEC's chief would like to see done. Plus, five actions to watch in the near future to see for yourself if DHEC can change.

  • How these stories were reported

    Over eight months, reporters Sammy Fretwell and John Monk interviewed more than 200 people, filed dozens of requests for information and reviewed thousands of pages of public documents.

    The result is this eight-day special report.

    Fretwell specializes in environmental issues for The State newspaper. For the past 14 years, he has covered air, water and land issues, from the beaches to the mountains. He has won many writing awards.

    Monk is an award-winning investigative reporter who reports on a variety of issues for The State. His most recent in-depth work was on South Carolina’s illegal drug trade.

    Tim Dominick has won dozens of state and regional awards in his 27 years as a professional photographer. He has worked for The State for 25 years.

State Ports Authority spokesman Byron Miller said his agency is committed to expanding the Port of Charleston without polluting the landscape.

Miller said a new terminal will help the port overall.

“We will be able to handle more business and do it with less environmental impact,” he said.

Miller said many state and federal agencies had initial concerns about the expansion but since have dropped their objections. Those include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, often one of the most vocal agencies opposing development in sensitive areas. He took issue with criticism from environmentalists, doctors and residents who have protested the new terminal.

“It’s interesting you still have these folks who think they know more than all these federal and state agencies,” Miller said.

When completed, the terminal will be the second-largest of Charleston’s six and will increase the port’s capacity by about 50 percent. The initial phase of the project is to be finished in 2014.

The port’s largest terminal, at Mount Pleasant, across the Cooper River from Charleston, produced the majority of the air pollution documented in a recent emissions inventory.

DHEC air quality chief Myra Reece said the bureau is trying to rein in port pollution in the Charleston area, home to about 600,000 people and growing, through a voluntary agreement with the Ports Authority. Her division had no authority to permit the project because there is no “point source,” or smokestack, to regulate, she said. Most of the new pollution will come from cars, trucks and ships. DHEC’s coastal and water divisions issued the permits.

The agreement is designed to reduce air pollution generated by ships, businesses and trucks using terminal sites. The recently released emissions inventory was one result, Reece said.

The Ports Authority also agreed to:

• Help reduce trucks’ idling time by loading and unloading them more quickly

• Replace diesel-powered cranes with electric cranes

• Consider providing electricity for ships, if “economically feasible,” so they don’t run their engines while docked

The Environmental Protection Agency also chose the Ports Authority recently as one of seven recipients for money to reduce pollution from trucks and container stacking equipment.

In exchange for getting permits for the expansion, DHEC required the Ports Authority to spend money to offset the project’s environmental impacts. That includes $1 million to help the Trust for Public Land acquire Morris Island, a barrier island with a landmark lighthouse; $1 million to The Nature Conservancy to preserve land near the Cooper River; and $1 million to restore oyster reefs around Charleston.

The Conservation League’s Dana Beach said many of the efforts are good. But the agreement is nonbinding and will not make a meaningful difference in curbing pollution, he said.

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