"Sustainability is a journey, not a destination" read the words on the wall of Noisette's Storehouse Row office at the old Navy base, a room filled with optimistic environmental slogans and photographs. It was in that setting that 110 concerned citizens gathered on Tues., Aug. 7, for a Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) hearing to inform the public about the permitting process of energy transport company Kinder Morgan's request to expand their facility at Shipyard Creek by 20 acres.
Coal and cement dust from their unloading operations often coat the boats docked at the Cooper River Marina (see Aug. 1 City Paper story "Citizen Watch"), and many of the meeting attendees were boat owners. "This dust ain't coming from the heavens," said boater Alan Moore. "It's coming from Kinder Morgan."
Several representatives from North Charleston's neighborhood associations also spoke, concerned that the six 100-car trains traveling through the area each day, each pulling containers of uncovered coal, will release dust into the air and block emergency responders on roadways.
"Charleston County ranks 'F' in a measure of airborne particulate matter," said a representative from the Rosemont neighborhood bordering the site, in reference to a recent study by the American Lung Association. "Kinder Morgan has a history of polluting nationally and polluting here. What would have to happen for DHEC not to issue this permit?"
After several similar questions, DHEC Bureau of Air Quality Director of Environmental Services Rhonda Thompson announced that the permit would likely be granted, with regulations in place to control fugitive dust and emissions, and the standing-room only crowd erupted with cries of "Then why are we here?" North Charleston City Councilman Bob King pointed out that the city government and communities were against it, yet nothing seemed able to stop the permit.
DHEC officials were unable to answer questions about the effect of coal in the water on the health of people who fish and crab in Shipyard Creek, and most of their answers promised future actions like monitoring stations, surprise inspections, and a Citizen Advisory Panel. They applauded Kinder Morgan's recent efforts to be more accessible and open to DHEC. "I'll be the first to say we did not get that cooperation from this facility in the past," said Myra Reece, DHEC's Bureau of Air Quality Director.
In their ten years at Shipyard Creek, Kinder Morgan has had two series of violations, stemming from inspections in 2001 and 2005. A compliance inspection in May 2007 revealed several areas of possible noncompliance, which the company has until Aug. 21 to address. DHEC's Thompson explained to the crowd that past and current violations cannot play a role in their decision to issue a permit for expansion, blaming that on the failure of South Carolina's government to pass "bad boy" legislation that would allow a company's track record to be taken into account.
Over the years, State Sen. Phil Leventis (D-Sumter) has proposed laws requiring consideration of past compliance in the permitting process, but they've been shut down in subcommittee by small-government protectionists. "If you can be convicted time and again of inappropriate management and nothing happens, then why in heaven's name is there any incentive to manage things responsibly?" he asks.
Many hearing attendees addressed questions directly to Art Rudolph, Kinder Morgan's regional manager. Although he did apologize that the company had cleaned their docks by dropping water onto them, washing debris into the creek (caught on tape and viewable by searching "svosprey" on YouTube), Rudolph spent most of the evening deflecting blame for identified problems. He clarified that Kinder Morgan does not own the coal or the trains they use themselves, they just ship it, and therefore they don't have a responsibility to cover the coal cars as they travel through neighborhoods.
"My commitment to the environmental issues here is top of the priority," said Rudolph. "Safety and the environment is Kinder Morgan's priority right now." When a boat owner made an emotional statement about the dust that requires heavy scrubbing to remove from his boat, Rudolph assured him, "The next time there is an issue, contact me and I will come over there and help clean it," but refrained from giving out his personal phone number.
DHEC plans to issue a permit sometime in the coming months, and is currently researching facilities in other states to compose a list of requirements that may include a fogging system and water suppression sprinklers to keep fugitive dust to a minimum. Kinder Morgan says they've invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in measures that keep the dust contained while it is unloaded, although DHEC has no specific standards to regulate the unloading process. Both groups promise a system of air quality monitors will soon be in place throughout the area.
Despite all the measures that may be taken to contain the coal, many meeting attendees pointed out that a hurricane would spread a 20-acre coal pile far and wide throughout the surrounding area, a problem not thoroughly addressed by DHEC or Kinder Morgan. Many of the concerns raised by citizens appeared out of the hands of the representatives present. "I'm getting more and more frustrated with DHEC," said Larry Dysenzo, a boat owner. "They are here to protect us, but I don't see that happening."