Vigilant citizen confronts Kinder Morgan 

Citizen Watch: Calling out Kinder Morgan's polluting habits earns one man a visit from Homeland Security

click to enlarge Ken Bonerigo's boat is docked at the Cooper River Marina, just across shipyard creek from Kinder Morgan's Coal unloading operations
  • Ken Bonerigo's boat is docked at the Cooper River Marina, just across shipyard creek from Kinder Morgan's Coal unloading operations

If marine mechanic Ken Bonerigo had it his way, he'd live peacefully on his sailboat and not bother a soul. That easy living is made difficult, however, by black dust that occasionally fills the air around his boat during the coal unloading process at Kinder Morgan's Shipyard Creek facility, 100 yards by water from the Cooper River Marina at the south end of the old Navy base."It coats the boat, and if you step on it, it rubs in and penetrates the hull," says Neil Byrnes, who docks his boat next to Bonerigo. When the wind blows from the southwest, sailors at the marina are left with streaks in their sails, black dust in their A/C units, and a hefty cleanup on deck. Wind from the north or west blows dust into the Cooper River, while easterly gusts scatter the black powder over the impoverished neighborhoods around Spruill Avenue.

Kinder Morgan, which specializes in the transportation, storage, and distribution of materials used in energy production, recently applied for a DHEC (Department of Health and Environmental Control) permit to increase the amount of coal it traffics through Charleston from 3.5 to 10 million tons a year. The resulting coal pile would stand up to 80-feet high, weigh 600,000 tons, and cover 20 acres directly adjacent to the Cooper River.

Hazy Skies

DHEC held a public hearing on April 17 to gather opinions on the expansion, attracting around 50 concerned citizens, but have yet to issue a permit. An informal question and answer period that followed lasted an hour and a half.

"I asked DHEC (Department of Health and Environmental Control) if the current permit levels are safe to breathe, and they wouldn't answer the question," says Bonerigo. "We're worried about a smoking ban, but we've got secondhand chunks of coal in the air."

DHEC could not confirm that question was asked, but says that when maximum emission levels are not exceeded, that they fall within the standards considered suitable for human health. A second public meeting will occur this Tuesday, Aug. 7, to discuss the permit's status.

Kinder Morgan's expansion request coincides with a proposed $1 billion coal-fired plant near Florence on the Great Pee Dee River. Santee-Cooper asked DHEC in June to issue a critical air permit — prior to an environmental impact study — despite the plant's potential for releasing 4 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

Coal is increasingly frowned upon by the public for its high greenhouse gas emissions, smog-forming pollutants, and toxic mercury impact on fish and waterways. Kinder Morgan explained in the DHEC hearing that the "forecasted regional need for coal has prompted the plan for expansion," an apparent blitz by the two companies to move the related projects forward together to the point that they can't be stopped.

If Kinder Morgan expands their coal pile to 20 acres, the amount of dust in the air will likely increase as well. "I'm sure half the people at the marina won't stay," says boat owner Byrnes.

Bonerigo doesn't particularly want to leave. He attended the April hearing and began filming videos at Shipyard Creek that same night, motivated by the dismissive words of Kinder Morgan's Director of Business Development Dean McInnis, who said, "I'm sympathetic to these issues, but when we're meeting and exceeding requirements, what else can you do?"

Bonerigo's videos — available at YouTube by searching "svosprey" — clearly show coal spilling into the water and plumes of dust escaping into the air as the piles are transferred from ship to shore. In perhaps the most shocking footage, the video "Midnight Clean Up" shows a crane scooping up water and sloshing it onto the dock to wash the coal debris into the water rather than sweeping it up.

Environmentally unfriendly actions like the ones Bonerigo documented are not unique to recent months or to Shipyard Creek. Since the Houston, Texas-based corporation's formation in 1997 by Richard Kinder and Bill Morgan, both former executives for Enron and major financial supporters of President Bush, the company has been responsible for several environmental disasters, including a 123,000-gallon diesel spill in 2004 into California's Suisun Marsh, the largest saltwater wetland in the western United States, and a 2005 spill of 70,000 gallons into Oakland's inner harbor. An April 2005 pipe leak damaged pristine Donnor Lake in the Sierra Nevada, and in 2003 another break sent 19,000 gallons of gasoline spewing over a Tucson, Ariz. neighborhood.

The worst incident, a Nov. 2004 rupture of a high-pressure petroleum line by an excavator in Walnut Creek, Calif., resulted in the deaths of five workers when a welding torch ignited the gasoline-filled trench they were working in. The improperly marked pipeline cost Kinder Morgan a $140,000 fine for an "intentional and knowing violation" where there is "substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a condition which exists and no reasonable effort was made to eliminate the hazard." As they tend to do when charged with a violation, Kinder Morgan deflected the blame, with spokesman Rick Rainey stating "a backhoe operator ruptured our pipeline, so that had nothing to do with integrity."

In Charleston, a 1993 DHEC report of the often windy Shipyard Creek site, written during the construction of Cooper River Marina and before Kinder Morgan took over the coal unloading procedures, said that "fugitive dust is a very severe problem at this facility." Under Kinder Morgan's watch, violations of the Pollution Control Act and Water Classifications and Standards have persisted, covering everything from spillage of petroleum coke into the water to fugitive emissions from ships. A 2001 investigation uncovered seven violations, resulting in total fines of just $32,400, pocket change for a company worth $50 billion. Despite subsequent agreements to improve facilities, 2005 investigations found the company responsible for airborne particulate matter settling on neighboring properties, and a rating of "Unsatisfactory" was given for their stormwater management program.

DHEC has reviewed Bonerigo's recent videos but is "still trying to figure out what we're going to do with them," says Rhonda Thompson, director of DHEC's Engineering Services Division of the Bureau of Air Quality. "If [Kinder Morgan] can meet the requirements in our regulations [for emission limitations], having a history of violations doesn't give us the authority to deny a permit [for increased coal capacity]."

Keeping the watchdog on a short leash

On Tuesday evening, July 17, Bonerigo noticed dust blowing into the water from a ship and called Kinder Morgan to inform them. He awoke the next morning and went fishing in his jon boat, videotaping for a few minutes while in Shipyard Creek. After returning, at 7:47 a.m. he received a phone call from Craig Mullens, area manager for Kinder Morgan, who was with the terminal manager at the marina looking for Bonerigo to discuss his complaint.

"I told him I had been taking videos that morning," says Bonerigo. Mullens said he had seen them on YouTube. "He said 'I'm just a country boy,' and was very friendly. He said they had some people from Sweden showing them new ideas and methods to lessen the dust," says Bonerigo.

click to enlarge Large chunks of coal caught in the grating of Kinder Morgan's dock raise questions about how many smaller pieces make their way through to the water - KEN BONERIGO
  • Ken Bonerigo
  • Large chunks of coal caught in the grating of Kinder Morgan's dock raise questions about how many smaller pieces make their way through to the water

About an hour after Mullens and the terminal manager departed, two Charleston County Sheriff's Deputies arrived at Bonerigo's boat, responding to a "suspicious person call" and asking him if he was the one videotaping in Shipyard Creek.

"They told me it was a security exclusion zone, and that I wasn't allowed to tape there," says Bonerigo. After what Bonerigo calls "friendly conversation," the officers began to depart, but then received a call from Homeland Security to remain there. During this time, one of the county officers noticed that Bonerigo's boat's registration decal had been expired for over a year.

Minutes later, several more officers, led by Lt. Jim Connelly of Project Sea Hawk, a multi-jurisdictional Homeland Security program protecting Charleston's port, arrived and boarded Bonerigo's boat. Bonerigo showed them his videos and photographs. During the search one of the officers accidentally broke his camera.

Lt. Connelly refuses to discuss details of the boarding. "We're allowed to board for safety purposes any time, anywhere," he says. "First of all, he invited us on his vessel. When I told him we needed to get the (registration) papers he said, 'They're on my vessel. Let's get the papers.' I wouldn't have needed that permission if he hadn't given it because, there again, we're performing a safety inspection to determine the owner of the vessel." Bonerigo denies inviting the officers onto the boat.

Bonerigo presented a valid decal onboard, explaining to the officers that he planned to apply the sticker once he finished painting the exterior, but was issued a ticket for $257. "What we were doing there was citing him for a violation he had. That's the role we played," says Connelly.

Assistant Deputy Frank Gutierrez of Project Sea Hawk says a warrant wasn't required to board Bonerigo's boat because he wasn't displaying valid registration. "It'd be no different than if you were driving around without a license," he says. "It was a cordial kind of event, and it's a shame we had to issue him a ticket."

Sea Hawk did not seize Bonerigo's videos, and they still remain viewable on YouTube. The Coast Guard does not consider Shipyard Creek an exclusionary zone, and contrary to the statements Bonerigo claims the two Charleston County police made at the scene, citizens are allowed to take photographs and videos of Kinder Morgan's unloading process. If that activity, however, results in a report of a suspicious person, the Coast Guard or Homeland Security have an obligation to investigate.

"It would be no different than if you were crossing the Ravenel Bridge and you saw a ship at Union Pier that looked suspicious and called it in," says Lt. Connelly. "Somebody would respond."

Bonerigo feels that Kinder Morgan is using Homeland Security as their own private goon squad, citing the close proximity of the visits from Kinder Morgan's Mullens and Sea Hawk, and Mullens' knowledge that it was him taking the videos. When City Paper contacted Mullens, he quickly referred us to a company spokesman in Houston.

"The truth of the matter is that when we first saw this guy taking photos about a week ago, we had no idea who he was," says Kinder Morgan spokesman Larry Pierce. "We're required by the Marine Transportation Security Act to notify the Coast Guard and that's exactly what we did. The timing of the Homeland Security thing was just coincidental. [Mullens] went and visited [Bonerigo] about the dust complaint without even knowing it was the same guy."

Bonerigo is skeptical of any coincidental explanation, asking, "You've got the area and terminal manager over here at my boat, and there's a threat to the plant, so the security guard blows his whistle and doesn't call either manager?"

click to enlarge The red circle is kinder morgan's existing Coal pile at shipyard creek on the cooper river. yellow indicates the proposed expansion. Cooper River Marina sits just across from shipyard creek, in the lower left of this photo
  • The red circle is kinder morgan's existing Coal pile at shipyard creek on the cooper river. yellow indicates the proposed expansion. Cooper River Marina sits just across from shipyard creek, in the lower left of this photo

He's repeatedly tried to obtain the boarding report typical of any Coast Guard boarding, but Sea Hawk's Gutierrez says that since Charleston County responded to the call, the only records of the incident are Deputy Adcock's report about the expired registration, which never mentions boarding the boat. It concludes, "After issuing a citation a Sea Hawk investigative team arrived on the scene. R/D's turned the suspect over to them for further follow up in reference to the photographs."

"When we have secret police running around searching people's houses, then we need to have a report," says Bonerigo.

20 acres of coal + windy day = dirty river, cloudy air

DHEC plans to make a decision in the near future about Kinder Morgan's permit for increasing the coal storage capacity of Shipyard Creek, once they finish reviewing the public comments collected this spring. Director Rhonda Thompson says the violations will "play a factor in what's required in the permit," specifying "good work practices" and dust-containing sprinkler systems that keep coal piles wet as possible conditions.

Still, residents near the site and along the rail lines that will transport as many as five trains a day of uncovered coal through their neighborhood worry about the soot on their homes and the potential health effects of breathing the black dust. In an April 30 letter to DHEC, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey urged the agency to withhold issuing a permit until more pollution tests were carried out, citing concern about harm to the environment, jeopardizing public health, and traffic problems from the added trains.

"The dust burns your eyes. It's intolerable now, and if they triple the size it'll just be totally insane," says Bonerigo. "They have not been good neighbors, and they've repeatedly violated regulations. A person can't keep getting DUIs and not get in more and more trouble."

Kinder Morgan continues to defend their record, citing their compliance with DHEC's standards. "We're not going to make this a personal thing between Kinder Morgan and one individual who's not happy," says spokesman Pierce. "Not everyone's going to be pleased with our solution." Pierce has not viewed Bonerigo's videos, and says he "has better things to do with my time."

At the public hearing in April, Kinder Morgan listed their equipment upgrades, including "new cranes operated by trained Kinder Morgan personnel, significantly reducing fugitive emissions." If the material spilling from the scoops on Bonerigo's videos is any indication of the new cranes' quality, they paid too much. It remains up to DHEC to determine if that even matters.

DHEC will hold an informal public meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 7 at 6:30 p.m. to give the community an update on the draft expansion permits, share the results of meetings with Kinder Morgan officials and a May 2007 compliance inspection of the facility, and answer any other questions from attendees. The meeting takes place at the DHEC Region 7 Charleston EQC Office located at 1362 McMillan Avenue, Suite 300, at Noisette at the old Navy base.


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