Charleston's Dirty Little Secret 

Don't breathe deep — there are killers afloat

click to enlarge JOSH CURRY

Sunny skies, warm winters, and clean ocean breezes. Our comfortable weather and environment draws increasing numbers of people to Charleston to enjoy our quality of life. Unlike notoriously polluted places like L.A. or New Jersey, breathing here is an afterthought.

So here's an unwelcome surprise: Our air is downright dirty. Earlier this year, the American Lung Association (ALA) gave Charleston County an "F" for the levels of particulate matter in our air. There's no special scale here. F means we haven't done our homework, and now we're playing catch-up. We rank first in the state among counties where people are at risk from breathing diesel soot, and 239 among 3,109 counties nationwide.

Breathing through a Cloth Straw

Ashley Linen was 8 years old when she was first hospitalized for asthma, a trend that hasn't let up for the 15-year-old high school student in Hanahan.

"I remember her having a hard time sucking from a bottle as a baby," says her mother, Wanda Harris, assistant director of food services at Crisis Ministries downtown. "She never played like other children and was always saying her chest hurt."

After seeing a doctor when the complaints increased, Harris says her lungs were "scarred like she'd been smoking since the time she was born" and her breaths "hummed like a harmonica."

The family has adapted to Ashley's asthma attacks, which come on like "an acute heart attack." She's got a peak flow meter at home to measure her lung capacity, and a nebulizer that Ashley feels aggravates the problem, but uses it because the doctors tell her to. The financial burden of hundreds of dollars spent on inhalers in the early years has fortunately been eased by Medicaid, and she's been hospitalized only twice this year.

But cold is a trigger, and Ashley says she can feel it getting worse. "My chest starts to get tight, and I start aching really bad and get cold," she describes. If her peak flow meter dips below 200 from her normal 350, it's time for the emergency room. "It feels like I'm breathing through a cloth straw."

From their front yard, Wanda and Ashley can hear the rattle of cars and trucks passing overhead on I-526, only a block away. Over 10,000 trucks pass through the Long Point Road and I-526 intersection, outside the gate of the South Carolina State Ports Authority's (SPA) Wando Welch terminal, in a 16-hour period. Many of those continue up I-526 to I-26, passing directly by Ashley's house.

The diesel exhaust from these trucks contains 40 hazardous pollutants, 15 of which are known carcinogens. Children living within a quarter mile of freeways generally have deficits in lung volume growth and permanently reduced lung function (The Lancet, Jan. 2007).

click to enlarge Built like a toxic jawbreaker and far smaller than a speck of dust, PM2.5 is prevalent in Charleston's air
  • Built like a toxic jawbreaker and far smaller than a speck of dust, PM2.5 is prevalent in Charleston's air

The primary culprit in Charleston's F rating is a little bugger called PM2.5. (Translation: "soot," or fine particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns. For perspective, a human hair is typically around 70 microns in diameter.) Different from ozone, which is formed when sunlight reacts with vapors from burned fuel, particle pollution is fresh and ready to be inhaled the moment it's released, often at street level. PM2.5 is too small for our body to filter, easily penetrating our lungs and blood stream. Emitted primarily from coal-fired power plants and diesel-powered trucks, ships, and machinery, it gives us asthma, heart and cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, strokes, and damages our immune systems. When we inhale it, 85 percent of the particles can remain in our body for 24 hours.

Charleston jumped from a B in 2005 to an F in 2006, partially attributable to changes in the EPA's safe level standards. Until December 2006, 65 micrograms per cubic meter was deemed safe, a number the EPA lowered to 35 last year. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) estimated Charleston's levels at 28 in 2006, but continued air monitoring leads conservationists to estimate we're currently hovering around 32.

Recent studies demonstrate that 35 micrograms per cubic meter is still not stringent enough to protect human health. A nine-year analysis of 65,000 initially healthy women found that higher particulate counts in urban areas corresponded to higher death rates (New England Journal of Medicine, Feb. 2007). The particle concentrations in the study ranged from 3.4 to 28.3 micrograms per cubic meter (remember Charleston's at least 28), and each 10 microgram rise corresponded to a 76 percent increase in the chance of dying from a cardiovascular cause.

Asthma cases in the U.S. have increased 450 percent since 1980, nearing 30 million cases today, with children and low-income families (more likely to live near freeways and industrial zones) being the most susceptible. It's the leading cause of hospitalization for children in our state. Charleston County's African-American children in particular experienced a 2,000 percent increase in asthma cases between 1956 and 1997.

But no one is immune when a city's air quality is poor. Donna Webb moved to Isle of Palms from Atlanta last year, where ozone levels in summer months are accompanied with warnings about outdoor physical exertion. Webb developed asthma as an adult that progressed into chronic bronchitis and repeated bouts of pneumonia. Her son had enlarged lymph nodes and "sounded like he had emphysema" at age two. After undergoing lung and sinus surgeries to help alleviate her ailments, Webb and her family realized they had to make a change.

Charleston's air was rated B, and the ocean was nearby. "I wanted to get to the cleanest, saltiest air we could find," says Webb, who gave up a lucrative real estate business to relocate. When she heard about our F grade this year, she created the website to inform the public and chart the causes and progress made in the Lowcountry's air. "Imagine what the air would be like if we weren't windy and close to the ocean, and still it's getting bad," says Webb. "My fear is that if nothing is done, Charleston will end up in the same boat as Atlanta, where we get so deep that we can't dig out."

When city leaders imposed traffic controls during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, curbing morning traffic by 23 percent, ozone, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide levels all decreased as well. In that three-week period, citywide hospitalization for asthma dropped 19 percent, clearly indicating the correlation between our commuter lifestyles and air quality.

Proud of Charleston for imposing the smoking ban? The New York University School of Medicine found in 2003 that long-term exposure to soot-filled air (with an average of 17.1 micrograms per cubic meter) means a 31 percent increase in a person's risk of dying from heart disease. That's about the increased risk from being a former smoker.

"The overwhelming weight of evidence to date orients PM2.5 pollution among the most harmful and pervasive ambient environmental contaminants to threaten human health," states a letter co-signed this year by 22 public health organizations, including the American Cancer Society and the American Heart and Lung Associations. They are urging the EPA to lower the safe level of PM2.5 closer to 10 micrograms per cubic meter.

Whether we're at 28 or 32 micrograms per cubic meter in Charleston, it may actually be healthier to stay home with Oprah and Fritos than to huff and puff your way over the Ravenel Bridge.

click to enlarge Roughly 2,000 cargo ships currently visit Charleston harbor each year, each typically emitting between 500 and 1,000 pounds of hazardous pollutants during their stay. Nine percent of S.C. children suffer from asthma. Ashley Linen lives a block form I - BEN WILLIAMS
  • Roughly 2,000 cargo ships currently visit Charleston harbor each year, each typically emitting between 500 and 1,000 pounds of hazardous pollutants during their stay. Nine percent of S.C. children suffer from asthma. Ashley Linen lives a block form I

Got Cancer?

We are all responsible for Charleston's F rating with the ALA. Every time we drive a vehicle or crank up a lawn mower, we're burning oil that releases toxins into the air. Every bit of electricity we use (significantly more in S.C. than the national average per household) contributes to the toxic plumes being emitted from the five coal-fired power plants surrounding us on the Edisto River, Lake Moultrie, and up the road in Georgetown. Santee Cooper has proposed a new coal plant on the Pee Dee River, larger than any other in the state, to meet our growing demand, and they're already building new units at their Cross plant, upriver from Charleston. Even our school buses and public transit run on dirty diesel fuel, although all state vehicles are scheduled to begin using a 5 percent biofuel/95 percent diesel mixture this January.

No comprehensive comparison study has been conducted in Charleston, but when the source breakdown of particulate matter from other cities is taken into account, it is impossible to separate the Port of Charleston from responsibility for the degradation of our air quality. Puget Sound, Wash. (Seattle and Tacoma), attributes 60 percent of diesel pollution to the port, and Philadelphia, Pa., around 50 percent. Roughly 2,000 ships visit Charleston's four terminals each year, each one releasing between 500 and 1,000 pounds of hazardous pollutants into the air during an average 14-hour stay.

The unrefined bunker fuel that cargo ships burn is a black, syrupy toxic playground, containing as much as 3,000 times the sulfur of the diesel fuel used in trucks. While cranes load and unload cargo onto the ships (which are then placed on diesel burning trucks), the ships idle at their berth, filling our air with particle pollution that's left behind when the ships chug back out to the great beyond. The environmental nonprofit Friends of the Earth sued the EPA in 2003 to stop this, setting a deadline in the settlement for the EPA to regulate ship emissions by April 2007. That date passed without action, and a new lawsuit was filed this past September.

A study published Nov. 7 by the American Chemistry Society found that 60,000 people worldwide died as a result of shipping emissions in 2002 (a health care cost of $330 billion), a number they predict will grow 40 percent by 2012.

Charleston is on pace to speed that deadly increase. The S.C. State Ports Authority is currently working to build a new terminal at the old Navy Base, which they claim would increase total port capacity by 50 percent. The Coastal Conservation League sued the U.S. Corps of Engineers last week, claiming that the agency issued permits for the terminal without adequately examining the environmental and traffic-related repercussions of expansion.

"In places where they actually monitor the port pollution and do epidemiological studies to look at its impacts, the picture is stark," says the Coastal Conservation League's (CCL) Nancy Vinson. At the Port of Los Angeles, people living within a mile of the port have been shown to have a 1,000 percent greater risk of cancer, and those 5 miles away still face a 200 percent increase.

Los Angeles, Oakland, and Puget Sound have all begun major cleanup programs, including switching boats to electric power while berthed, adding filters on trucks, and requiring ships to switch to cleaner fuel as they approach the harbor. No such efforts are currently underway here.

In Charleston, DHEC operates two PM2.5-capable air quality monitors, one near the airport and the other by Joe Riley Stadium downtown. The numbers taken from these monitors are used by the ALA in assigning their grades. Conservationists argue that the locations aren't close enough to pollution sources and that hot spots exist near the port that likely far exceed acceptable particulate matter concentrations. "The downtown monitor is in a location where it would get the least port pollution under the prevailing winds on the side of the peninsula near the Ashley River, where it blows from the South/Southwest," says CCL's Vinson.

DHEC Environmental Health Manager Brian Barnes says that their assessment of ambient air quality exceeds federal specifications. "We ensure that we're getting representative data, monitoring the air where a certain scale of people live," says Barnes. "We make sure that an area is staying in attainment, and we're confident that the network is good. But even if you're a major league player that bats .400, you'd rather bat .450, so we're still always striving to be even better."

The Port of Los Angeles has six monitoring stations on site, an example of how to get even better. A 1979 settlement, after the Town of Sullivan's Island, the National and S.C. Wildlife Federations, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and other organizations sued the State Ports Authority and government representatives, mandated that SPA would "ensure that the existing or an equivalent air quality monitoring system be maintained and modified as necessary to measure the impact of port activities on the ecosystem." The legal terms require "periodic monitoring to be done with sufficient frequency" at the Wando Welch terminal, SPA's largest with four berths. The agreement says either DHEC or a private firm is to conduct the monitoring.

SPA has never tested for PM2.5 at any of their sites, and DHEC has never tested at Wando Welch.

click to enlarge Conservationists argue that DHEC's air monitors are placed away from where wind carries port pollution. DHEC is "confident that the network is good."
  • Conservationists argue that DHEC's air monitors are placed away from where wind carries port pollution. DHEC is "confident that the network is good."

Green but Filthy?

The State Ports Authority is conscious of public perception, and they've recently made publicized efforts to lessen their environmental impact. Earlier this month, they granted a conservation easement on 100 acres of buffer wetlands at the Wando Welch terminal (also protected in the 1979 settlement, which SPA acknowledges in their release.) A Memorandum of Agreement between SPA and DHEC, released last March, details how they'll "balance the economic development needs of SPA ... and air impacts resulting from such development." Initiatives they've agreed to include leaving open the possibility of shore-to-ship electric power at their proposed new terminal at the old Navy Base, the agreement to "evaluate the use" of cleaner fuels and engines as they become economically viable, and a full "emissions survey" to be completed by a hired third-party by next September.

The memorandum, which expires in March 2010 (two years before the most optimistic opening date of the terminal), applies to both new and existing facilities, but "is specifically linked to the new terminal," says SPA Director of Public Relations Byron Miller. "If we don't expand, the economic incentive goes away and so does the requirement for improvements at existing facilities."

SPA also switched their cranes and off-road equipment to cleaner ultra-low sulfur diesel this September, three years ahead of a federal mandate. The new fuel releases 10 percent less particulate matter when it is burned. Ships make up an estimated 60 percent of port emissions, trucks another 30, and on-shore equipment the remaining 10. While commendable, the change cuts particulate emissions by around one percent of total port operations.

"We're glad they've done it three years before being forced to by the EPA, but it's a tiny fraction of the problem," says CCL's Vinson.

The proposed Navy Base terminal has been met with major opposition from adjacent neighborhoods and landowners already surrounded by a chemical plant, a cement factory, and possibly a 20-acre coal pile proposed by the nearby Kinder Morgan facility. Conservation groups say the terminal will clog already congested I-26 with trucks and add to a particle pollution level that is already hovering just below the EPA's acceptable limit.

"It just doesn't make sense to put a major industrial port facility in the middle of a growing area that's already bumping up against the clean air standard," says CCL's Vinson. "It defies reason, and it's going to cost the taxpayers a fortune for widening I-26 and building an access road. It'll be like Atlanta, the gridlock will be horrible, and there will be constant construction for decades as each new section of I-26 is widened."

Vinson questions the Environmental Impact Study used to obtain a draft permit from DHEC for the new terminal, which states the project would have "no adverse impact to ambient air quality."

"It's the worst EIS I've ever seen," she says, and the Southern Environmental Law Center says the "no adverse impact" statement is "demonstrably false." SPA's figures estimate an annual growth rate of 4.28 percent over the next 20 years, despite a historical average growth around seven percent. The U.S. Department of Transportation has estimated that Charleston's port could grow an average of 18 percent each year until 2020.

"The EIS underestimates the volume of the containers and ignores most emissions from trucks, ships, and trains. They were grasping at such straws in their air model that they had all their employees driving small economy cars," says Vinson. "If you want to underestimate your air impact and traffic congestion, you underestimate your volume of cargo."

Although SPA did drop the small car claim from their final EIS, the report includes three ships idling in berth, but none moving in the harbor where fuel consumption is far greater. Opponents also debate the estimated 10,800 vehicle trips a day the terminal would cause, saying it'd be two or three times that number. Even with an arguably conservative EIS, the PM2.5 emissions level was found to be 45.7 micrograms per cubic meter, over the EPA's safe level of 35, but out of DHEC's jurisdiction because of the still unregulated mobile sources of emissions (ships). SPA claims that number assumes the "worst-case scenario" and doesn't account for additional mitigation efforts.

"That's a dilemma of attainment planning, and a shortcoming of the federal program. There's certain things we really cannot do until an area gets designated as non-attainment," says DHEC's Barnes. If Charleston County falls into non-attainment after the new terminal is built, Barnes explains that "day-to-day" operations at DHEC would be significantly hindered while adjustments are made to operations to meet the standard.

Barnes is nonetheless confident that SPA is sincere in their efforts to clean up. He cites the emissions inventory they've committed to, which will include ship emissions from a mile offshore and trucks until they leave the county, as a solid step in establishing a baseline number that can then be lowered. The memorandum with DHEC commits SPA to purchasing a $180,000 particulate monitoring station and funding for at least eight months of testing after the terminal opens. Earlier this month, SPA hosted 36 global shipping executives to discuss moving toward ship-to-shore power, a change that would allow boats to cut off their engines while in port. SPA's board also approved a resolution this month to support stricter standards on vessel emissions.

"What we're doing goes way beyond doing some tests and sticking the numbers in a drawer," says SPA's Miller. "We're evaluating baseline emissions and will seek measurable ways to reduce them. We're looking for bang-for-your-buck options to ensure that we have greater economic opportunity while at the same time lessening our impact. We're in attainment, and we want to keep it that way, so we're committed to working with reasonable people to reduce our port emissions, while continuing to provide jobs."

In 2002, SPA hired indicted economist Al Parish to conduct an economic impact survey. He estimated 280,000 jobs would be created by a port expansion. "When they say they'll create jobs, they don't tell you want kind do they?" asks CCL's Vinson. "I'd agree with Al Parish on those numbers, but the jobs will be in the medical profession."

Wheezing Our Way into the Future

Despite the surprisingly poor quality of our air, progress is being made. Charleston County received 31 new school buses this year, and the state legislature expects to replace one-15th of S.C.'s fleet with cleaner buses each year for perpetuity. Santee Cooper may build their new coal plant, but not without significant public opposition and a series of legal battles that could drag on for years. An international movement to clean up ports is underway, and despite the economic pressures of competition from Virginia and Savannah, Ga., SPA will have to change.

The question lies in whether Charleston County's air quality will have to reach non-attainment before DHEC forces industry to prioritize public health. The lack of aggressive action to lower PM2.5 levels suggests that, right now, commerce and economics are prioritized before the health of the county's residents, including children like Ashley Linen.

"If you're living or working near the port, you're getting clobbered," says CCL's Vinson. She explains that the port could be green and efficient, if they'd consider using rail instead of trucks, provide shore-to-ship power, mandate that ships decrease speed on their way into the port, and require trucks to install diesel particulate filters. Vinson also touts an alternative to a new terminal in Charleston. Georgia and South Carolina are currently collaborating over a site in Jasper County that has 1,800 available acres, doesn't require dredging, has accessible rail, and is far from population centers.

The good news here in Charleston is that cleaning up is cost effective. The EPA estimates that once rules are tightened on diesel engines, 20,000 premature deaths will be prevented, as well as 15,900 hospital admissions and half a million asthma attacks. Reducing emissions from trains, trucks, and ships by 2030 would cost between $2 and $4 billion dollars but would save at least $70 billion in health and environmental costs. Now that's a bang-for-your-buck alternative.

concerned About Your Health and the Air in Charleston?

• Carpool, use public transit, or ride a bike instead of driving short trips.

• Check out the EPA's Clean School Bus campaign and encourage your child's driver not to idle in front of the school.

• Write the EPA to say you support a lower PM2.5 acceptable level, and you support emission standards on oceangoing vessels.

• Contact a trucking company and encourage them to outfit their fleet with diesel particulate filters.

• Write to your representatives and tell them you support the Jasper County terminal and are concerned about a new terminal in the middle of Charleston County's population center.

• Check air pollution forecasts and avoid outdoor exercise when it's high.

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