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Ever hear the one about the spontaneously combusting shrimp? The Ashley River was once lined with industrial factories, chemical plants, fertilizer production facilities and more, pumping hazardous chemicals and materials into the river, pluff mud and groundwater. This hazardous waste can have devastating effects on the environment, such as contaminating local shrimp and oyster populations with phosphorus, and causing them to catch fire when exposed to oxygen in the air. 

This actually happened in 1992 to a shrimper whose phosphorous-contaminated crustacean haul caught fire on the Ashley River right off the proposed former Magnolia development along the upper peninsula. Talk about spicy shrimp. 

While the state and nation have more safeguards against such practices in place today, these dubious-sounding tales were common decades ago, when regulations around discharging industrial waste were much more lenient. And the impact of such loose regulation is still felt today.

“Over time, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) and others have learned from these past mistakes and really beefed up environmental protections and rules,” said Betsy La Force, the Coastal Conservation League’s communities and transportation senior project manager. “But we’re still living with, dealing with and paying for those past mistakes.”

Sources of waste vary widely in Charleston area 

Methods of the handling and disposal of hazardous waste can vary depending on the form and quantity of the waste being managed, according to DHEC public information officer Derrek Asberry. 

“All hazardous wastes have their own unique management challenges, and they all must be handled in accordance with the state’s hazardous waste management regulations,” he said. Challenges can include making sure waste is being handled appropriately, ensuring worker safety and making sure it’s transported to disposal or treatment areas equipped to deal with it.”

But due to the quantity of waste brought into the Lowcountry, accidents are bound to happen. Take, for example, nurdles — a sort of raw material for just about every plastic product everywhere — which were spilled in the Charleston harbor in 2019 by local plastics company Frontier Logistics. 

And once spilled, they do what plastics do — break down, enter the local food chain through the smallest organisms and work their way up until finally finding their way into our own diets. 

“We’re actively recruiting this industry into the Lowcountry,” said Dana Beach, former director and founder of the Coastal Conservation League. “The question one may ask, and apparently no one ever did, is, ‘Do we really want this industry in the Charleston harbor?’ My answer would, of course, be no. 

“This is low-hanging fruit … there’s just no excuse,” he added. “It’s not a hard thing to deal with if we have the political will and commitment to doing it. You can just not spill them!” 

But nurdles are only one example of the hazardous waste that has moved through and remains in the Lowcountry’s ecosystem. 

Medical waste from the city’s massive hospital district is another example of lesser-known forms of hazardous waste that have even recently made headlines. DHEC found that two of Charleston’s Roper St. Francis hospitals were mishandling medical waste, sending “infectious” and “solid” medical waste to multiple local landfills, according to consent orders signed by the hospitals and the state agency. They were fined $104,000. 

Urban runoff is another source, perhaps the biggest in terms of volume, of hazardous waste that finds its way into local waterways. After rainfall, trace heavy metals, oil and other harmful substances that sit in parking lots can be washed away into storm drains, ultimately leading back to rivers and the harbor. 

What can be done?

An amendment to the state’s Clean Water Act in the 1980s sought to reduce the impact of water runoff via detention ponds, but, Beach said, higher levels of bacteria have been found in the water going out of the detention ponds than in the water going in. “It’s a breeding ground,” he said.

La Force said the best thing we can do in the wake of improper handling of hazardous waste, both in distant and recent memory, is to do better.

“We can’t dump toxic waste into rivers anymore, but we’re still living with those decisions of the past,” she said. “The best thing we can do is learn from the mistakes and do better in the future.”

But Beach said the progress hasn’t been seen where it really matters.

“Society is wasteful and lazy, basically,” he said. “And it’s a hard thing to do — to try and compensate for and offset that. We’ve made some progress, sure, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be.”

A big part of that is reducing the amount of products we use that contribute to hazardous waste, like unrecyclable petroleum products.

“The bottom line is that it’s the right thing to do, and we ought to do as much as we can,” Beach said. “Everything has cost and problems, but plastics … we should use a heck of a lot less than we do … If you can avoid plastics, do it whenever you can.”

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