The hot environmental stories of 2008 

Green Evolution

6. Everything Green

Before everyone was talking about foreclosures and unemployment lines, the buzzword of 2008 was "green." Energy efficient homes are becoming commonplace, and businesses see the paper-green in sustainability. Charleston's first Green Fair attracted 5,000 people to Marion Square to learn how to make earth-friendly changes. Greening stuff — like our homes, cars, diets, pets, mothers-in-law, pillows, and underwear — reached the point of exhaustion just in time for the economy's ceiling to fall.

But the seed was planted. Green is mainstream, and public health and environmental impacts will likely play a larger role than ever before in industry and infrastructure decisions in S.C. Just maybe not in 2009, when the goal will likely be getting out of the red.

5. Flame-retardant Dolphins

Dolphins eat at the top of the food chain, just like humans. That means they're a great species for discovering what's accumulating in the waters of Charleston harbor. Studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association revealed this year that our dolphins are loaded with PBDEs (found in flame-retardants in everything from shower curtains to bed sheets) and PFCs (in stain repellants, Teflon, paints, food packaging, and cosmetics). It's giving them growths akin to the human papilloma virus (HPV), a common human STD. Considering our daily exposure to the same chemicals, that could spell bad news for the human immune system.

4. Drill Here, Drill Now

We heard it at every Sarah Palin rally: "Drill, baby, drill" Even though the numbers show that additional drilling off the S.C. coast would have no effect on gas prices (but could hurt our beach tourism), the logic seems to be that if we've got it, we should use it. And though it's doubtful we've even got it, S.C. politicians like Sen. Lindsay Graham began to favor drilling last summer in an attempt to look proactive in the face of rising gas prices. Four months later, there are no oil rigs in sight and nobody's complaining about $1.50 a gallon.

3. Johns Island Resists Metro's Advances

The "Keep Johns Island Rural" bumper stickers weren't enough to keep the urban minds off the East Coast's second largest island, but huge crowds of opponents and a weakened economy are helping.

Public meetings were held on Johns Island this year to discuss a Cross Island Expressway toll road from Kiawah to Maybank Highway, the continuation of Interstate 526 to the island, and the widening of Maybank. Nothing's been decided, but the latest news is that a toll road is out (a new, non-toll road could be in), alternatives to 526 are being considered (although that's still a tough climb for opponents), and a grid of parallel streets is being seriously weighed instead of widening Maybank.

If Angel Oak Village becomes a reality, it'll mean lots of new traffic. The large-scale development around the ancient tree garnered plenty of opposition, but much of the work had already been approved. That said, it may have at least united opposition to future projects.

2. Charleston's Trash Fire Gets Fanned

Eighty percent of household trash in Charleston County isn't landfilled — it's burned. From plastic to batteries to diapers, if it fits in your can on the street, chances are it goes in the fire. The contract with Veolia-Montenay, the company that operates the county's incinerator on Spruill Avenue, expires in 2010, and it is looking to get the contract renewed. Stepping in the way last spring, residents spoke out on dangerous furnace emissions, including dioxins, lead, arsenic, and mercury.

County Council responded to public complaints, forming a Green Ribbon Committee and hiring an outside consultant to analyze how best to reduce and handle our waste. The committee's findings are expected early this year. In the meantime, Veolia-Montenay announced recently that it uncovered a clerical error and lowered its reported mercury emissions from 129 to 27 pounds a year.

1. DHEC Gets Called Out

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is tasked with protecting the health of people, rivers, forests, air, and so on. That translates into one organization responsible for everything from giving restaurants a letter grade for cleanliness to permitting power plants to emit mercury into the air. And some say that stretches them a little too thin.

DHEC says it doesn't have the authority to take into account a company's past violations when issuing permits. That's been a major bone of contention for opponents of Kinder Morgan's coal-importing operation on Shipyard Creek. The state recently approved doubling the capacity at the North Charleston site.

The state organization also took flack last spring for overlooking Myrtle Beach electronics company AVX's alleged contamination of groundwater under a residential neighborhood for eight years.

In late November, Columbia's The State newspaper ran an eight-day series about DHEC's deficiency, from an inability to clean up underground gas leaks to the apparent open-hand given to waste disposal companies. The paper highlighted the ease industries obtain air and water permits that increase pollution. DHEC fired back, accusing The State of a self-serving agenda, but the series made public the long-held assertions of environmental advocates.

IN 2009: There will be more struggles over Santee Cooper's efforts to build a coal-fired power plant on the Pee Dee River and the State Ports Authority's new terminal in North Charleston. Economics could inhibit either project, as shipping line Maersk leaves the port and the price of coal rises. DHEC issued Santee Cooper an air quality permit last week, allowing the plant to emit 93 pounds of mercury into the air each year in an area already heavily contaminated with the toxic metal. DHEC says it had no choice. How timeless.


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