Dustin Waters has worked as staff writer 2015-present.
Like a bunch of little newsroom Rudys, there’s no keeping down a good reporter. Luckily, the City Paper has had more than a few talented journalists grace the pages with stories that either would have gone completely unnoticed or provided just the right focus to make a difference. Here are 20 stories that the City Paper broke over the past 20 years.
Charleston Ballet Theatre accused of using works without permission: As the Charleston Ballet Theatre celebrated its 25th season in 2011, the organization also faced claims of copyright infringement. While dance might lean to the more abstract and naturalistic end of the performing arts spectrum, the creative minds behind successful productions deserve credit for their original works and intellectual property. Erica Jackson Curran took a thoughtful look at what happened when former Charleston Ballet members found the company’s choreography to be a little too similar to other celebrated works. Reprimands were handed down to the responsible parties and efforts were made to appease the slighted parties, but there remained a tarnish on the company’s silver anniversary.
Charleston Fashion Week rejects gay-themed film: It began with a series of tweets and ended with even more questions surrounding why one in a series of short films commissioned by Charleston Fashion Week was rejected. As reported by Susan Cohen in 2012, the film’s creators claimed that the short was rejected due to content. At the time of the story, the specific reasons why Charleston Fashion Week organizers rejected the short film that depicted an intimate scene between two men remained unknown. A request for clarification went unanswered, and the matter ultimately remained a curious footnote from that year’s CFW.
Charleston County Incinerator: Leading up to the eventual close of Charleston County’s trash incinerator in 2009 amid complaints from residents regarding the ash, smoke, and odor that hung in the air, City Paper‘s Stratton Lawrence toured the facility in 2008. At the time, Lawrence wrote that the incinerator pumped 129 pounds of mercury into the air each year from burned batteries, light bulbs, and the like, while generating enough energy to power 7,000 to 10,000 homes. But as the expression goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Excess energy generated by the incinerator was sold to North Carolina utility CP&L, but residents in the nearby Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood voiced their objections to Charleston County Council, eventually leading to the plant’s demise.
Kinder Morgan coal pollution in Shipyard Creek: It started on the boat of local marine mechanic Ken Bonerigo, who refused to sit idly by while black dust filled the air around his boat during the coal unloading process at Kinder Morgan’s Shipyard Creek facility. Just 100 yards by water from the Cooper River Marina at the south end of the old Navy base, Kinder Morgan was looking to expand their coal pile to 20 acres in 2007. At the time, DHEC claimed to lack the ability to refuse Kinder Morgan’s application simply based on their past violations, but Bonerigo earned a visit from authorities for videotaping the company’s unloading operations.
Charleston’s Dirty Little Secret: Early in 2007, the American Lung Association (ALA) gave Charleston County an “F” for the levels of particulate matter in our air, which led to a more in-depth look at how pollutants affected locals struggling with catching their breath. While asthma cases had increased 450 percent since 1980 nationwide, with children and low-income families (more likely to live near freeways and industrial zones) being the most susceptible, Charleston County’s African-American children in particular experienced a 2,000 percent increase in asthma cases between 1956 and 1997.
Water pollution and marine health: The health of Charleston’s marine life has long been a focal point for the City Paper because, while we all love dolphins, sea creatures prove to be a good indicator of pollutants that can soon pose a risk to the human population. In 2008, a feature story by Stratton Lawrence included the incredibly simple, yet compelling line, “The dolphins are sick.” At the time, researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association in Charleston had identified incredibly high rates of orogenital neoplasia, a malady similar to the human papilloma virus (HPV) in humans, in local dolphins. Fast forward to 2016 and the City Paper once again followed as researchers continued to find that some of the highest levels of PFASs in marine mammals throughout the world are found here.
Leaking underground storage tanks: From pollutants in the air, sea, and finally underneath our soil, in 2016 the City Paper turned its focus to the number of buried storage tanks in Charleston County. According to the Department of Health and Environmental Control, there were currently 150 confirmed active releases — or leaks — from underground storage tanks (UST) in the tri-county area at the time, half of which were in Charleston County. Commonly used to store petroleum products like gasoline and oil, these leaking tanks potentially impact the environment in far-reaching ways. In a study from 2012, researchers from the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health in cooperation with the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities (LAMC) discovered that the majority of these sites were clustered along a portion of I-26. Examining the demographics of communities nearest to these sites, it was discovered that as the percentage of African-Americans and non-whites increased, so too did the number of leaking UST sites. The same correlation was found between the prevalence of leaking storage tanks and the percentage of those living in poverty.
S.C. Department of Education wants to eliminate classroom size restrictions: Fall 2013 found state Superintendent Mick Zais drawing the ire of Charleston-area educators as he aimed to eliminate student-to-teacher ratio caps, teacher workload limits, and requirements for the hiring of guidance counselors. At the time, the City Paper reported that state law capped the ratio of students per teacher in public schools at 20:1 in pre-kindergarten, 30:1 in fifth grade math, 35:1 in all eighth grade courses, and 35:1 in all high school courses other than physical education. If the proposed legislation had passed, all of those caps would have gone the way of the dinosaur, leading teachers to cry foul at the possibility of being even more overworked.
Mapping Charleston’s public urination problem with the PeeNinsula 5000: Recognizing Charleston’s “going concern” related to the lack of public restrooms downtown, Paul Bowers began chronicling all reported incidents of public urination violations. While the project had a funny name and no one is immune to potty humor, the story shined a light on a serious matter as locals and tourists alike found themselves enjoying a night downtown only to realize they had no place to go when nature called.
Busking: Not every paper is willing to send one of their writers into the mean streets armed only with a banjo and the desire to earn a buck. In 2015, the City Paper enlisted our very own Paul Bowers to take a turn at busking and highlight a few of the local scene’s most recognized street performers. Of course, this wasn’t just a one-off performance. Bowers had covered previous efforts by the city to rein in buskers by limiting public spaces where they could perform and the effects this had on the local art community. In 2013, the ACLU even stepped in to take a stand in support of those hoping to put their talents on display near the City Market. Ultimately, we learned that you can’t keep a good artist down and Paul Bowers, along with his trusty banjo, is basically the Charleston equivalent of Kermit the Frog — an earnest, yet trusted national treasure.
Panhandling scrambles: In March, 2015, Paul Bowers spent some time with a few panhandlers under the I-526 overpass on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard as they were met with their very own protester, who had taken it upon himself to, as Bowers put it, “harangue beggars face to face.” As Charleston approached the city’s decision to pass a new ordinance prohibiting the passing or receiving of money or goods through car windows on city streets, Bowers wrote about the effect that such a restriction would have on homeless newspaper sellers hoping to pass out a few copies of the Lowcountry Herald. Finally, in September of 2015 as the new ordinance took effect, yours truly was in the streets talking to those most affected by the new ban. A panhandler who asked to be identified only by his first name returned to his usual haunt near the Highway 17 off-ramp on East Bay Street. He now faced a possible fine of $1,092 or 30 days in jail for accepting anything from a passing car. He wasn’t bitter. He just posted a few signs letting people know of his new spot. “It won’t be as good as it was,” he said. “But it’ll be enough to survive. And that’s what matters.”
Grinding through the years: If you’ve served as a staff writer for the City Paper in the past 20 years, it’s certain that you’ve covered the local skate scene in some way. From efforts to clamp down on skateboarding around the city, to the Bieringville Bowl on Johns Island and the recent completion of the Sk8 Charleston skate park, it’s been a long, strange road for local skaters and the City Paper has been there for every twist and turn along the way.
HomeServe water line insurance: In 2014, the City Paper began what would become an extended series of coverage on the Charleston Water System’s decision to loan the public utility’s official logo to HomeServe, a private company specializing in service plans for residential exterior water service lines. On the surface, this may not seem like an especially unforgivable decision, but local residents and insurance watchdogs began to cry foul regarding the official nature of HomeServe’s solicitations of Charleston Water System customers. After continued bad press and public complaints, Charleston Water Systems announced new guidelines in 2015, agreeing that HomeServe would no longer be allowed to use the CWS logo on the outside of mailing envelopes or on the initial letter that customers see upon opening the envelope.
Ridiculously Photogenic Guy: Viral sensations usually fall into two categories: People either failing spectacularly in the most mundane of situations or individuals shining like diamonds when all reason would dictate otherwise. Zeddie Little, a.k.a. Ridiculously Photogenic Guy, falls into the latter. At a moment when he should have looked like a sweating, gasping mess, Little was photographed in mid stride during the 2012 Cooper River Bridge Run looking like a million bucks. As Little was reaching peak meme status, the City Paper managed to track down the story on the Charleston native who graduated from the College of Charleston and manned the kitchen at EVO Pizzeria.
The Ravenel Bridge protest: So this one is a bit of a prickly matter, but let’s try to unpack the events that surrounded the reported Ravenel Bridge protest that eventually materialized in 2015. Following the fatal shooting of Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer, a group of activists announced a planned protest to block the Ravenel Bridge in April of that year. Plans for the protest were released to the press, but things quickly fizzled as organizers soon followed up by saying “THIS INFORMATION IS NO LONGER RELEVANT. THERE HAS BEEN A LEAK. PLEASE DISREGARD AND DO NOT PUBLISH THIS INFORMATION.” One month later, four protesters were arrested for blocking traffic on the Ravenel Bridge during rush hour as they called for a civilian oversight of the North Charleston Police Department.
After Walter Scott shooting, city and state officials kept a close watch on outside groups: A Freedom of Information Act request in 2015 revealed the extent to which local and state authorities monitored protest groups, potential cyber-security threats, and even an out-of-state chaplaincy organization, according to city employees’ email records obtained in the weeks following the shooting death of Walter Scott by North Charleston officer Michael Slager. As national attention was drawn to North Charleston, state and local agencies focused on any “gatherings, protests, people coming into town, threats, etc.”
Short-term rental woes: With lawsuits, infractions, and a city-led task force all focused on Charleston’s short-term rental regulations, a 2015 story found that no one was immune to the city’s rules. Leading up to his election as Charleston’s first new mayor in 40 years, John Tecklenburg spoke to the City Paper after his wife, Sandy, was found guilty of illegal use of property after listing a house on a short-term rental website, according to Livability Court records. At the time, Tecklenburg said that he and his wife were unaware that short-term rentals were illegal in their part of the city. Now, it seems everyone is well aware of Charleston’s short-term rental rules — whether they like them or not.
Stolen firearms from unlocked vehicles lead to spread of violent crime: In September 2016, after noticing a growing number of reported gun thefts from unlocked vehicles, I discovered that Charleston experienced twice the number of gun thefts from unsecured vehicles compared to Gainsville, Fla. — a city of similar size that was also grappling with a rise in firearm thefts. Almost nine months later, as we continued to track firearm thefts across the city, the Charleston Police Department attributed the spread of violent crime into lower-crime neighborhoods to the easy access to firearms in unsecured vehicles. As former Police Chief Greg Mullen said at the time, “[C]riminals are coming into neighborhoods that they know are easy targets because their vehicles are unsecured, garage doors are left up, so they have easy access to vehicles and homes, they are coming into these neighborhoods and committing crimes. They are stealing guns, and then these guns are going back out into neighborhoods to commit more violent acts.”
How South Carolina’s guns end up in the hands of out-of-state criminals: From a citywide look at stolen weapons to South Carolina’s role in national gun trafficking, the City Paper took a closer look at firearm data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to find that the Palmetto State ranks near the top among states when it comes to lost or stolen guns reported by licensed dealers. Many of these weapons inevitably make their way into the hands of criminals who transport the weapons to states in the Northeast where gun restrictions are more strict. One such weapon was used to murder New York City Police Officer Randolph Holder on Oct. 20, 2015. Highlighting the rate at which weapons simply go missing from the inventories of local dealers turned out to be just one component of how gun laws in South Carolina affect events across the country.
The View from Bridgeview: Following the death of Denzel Curnell by gunshot wound after an off-duty police officer pursued him through the Bridgeview parking lot, City Paper‘s Paul Bowers reviewed 11 months of incident reports filed in the largely African-American low-income community near the northern end of the Charleston peninsula to better understand crime in the area. With hired off-duty cops monitoring the area in addition to the on-duty officers who already patrolled the complex, there had to be more to the story. What he found was that the most common type of incident by far at Bridgeview was not violence, drugs, or theft — it was trespassing. And most of the criminal activity that occurred inside Bridgeview, whether trespassing or not, was perpetrated by those who lived outside of the community. In the end, the story was less about providing a titillating news blip and more about providing a deeper look at how crime, police, and community interact in one small apartment complex. Because whether or not we’re the first to report on a story, we’ll do our damnedest to tell you something you haven’t heard before.