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This past Tuesday the Post and Courier ran an article titled “Cooper River in Charleston Among Worst for Carcinogens.”  The article states that more than 45,000 pounds of cancer-causing chemicals were released into the Cooper River in 2010 by local industrial facilities.  That 45,000 pounds made the Cooper River the sixth worst in the nation for such discharges.  It’s a striking headline that drastically underscores the need for Charleston Waterkeeper’s audit of all permitted dischargers in the Charleston Harbor Estuary–work we’ve been doing for the past year.

The article and report on which it’s based rely on data from the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory.  The TRI was created as a public right-to-know program in the wake of the Bhopal, India disaster.  The Inventory requires industrial facilities that use certain toxic chemicals to report a yearly estimate of releases to the air, land, and water.  Release is defined broadly to include everything from accidental spills, to permitted discharges of treated wastewater, to transfers of toxic chemicals for proper off site disposal.  The self-reported release estimates are compiled into the Inventory and published to the public by the EPA.

The 2010 Inventory data is the most recent data available and for the first time notes the waterways receiving the release.  In the report Wasting our Waterways 2012 Environment America and Frontier Group looked at the Inventory data by receiving waters and cross referenced the type of chemicals released with California’s list of Chemicals Known to the State to Cause Cancer or Reproductive Toxicity.  They then ranked the waterways by total amount of cancer-causing chemicals received.  The Cooper River ranked sixth.

Inventory data is useful because it shows what type of chemicals were released and where.  But Inventory data also has limitations–it cannot determine the human health risk associated with exposure.  That type of determination requires an environmental exposure assessment, a much more complicated and in-depth study.  Inventory data also does not indicate whether the reported releases were in compliance with applicable laws and regulations.

The fact is some or all of these releases may have been lawful.  In 1972 the federal Clean Water Act set the goal of eliminating the discharge of all pollutants to our nation’s waterways by 1987.  To reach that goal the CWA created a system of permitting point source discharges called the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.  Although, the nation has fallen woefully short of this goal, it’s a goal we strive for at Charleston Waterkeeper.

The first step in ensuring 100% compliance with the laws on the books. Taking the first step requires knowing whether or not any of the releases violated the Clean Water Act.  That’s the critical question the Inventory data cannot answer.  But it’s exactly the question our point source discharge audit was designed to answer.

Several months ago we began by identifying all the permitted dischargers in our watershed.  There are approximately 113 permits authorizing the discharge of pollutants into our waterways. The permit holders generally fall into two categories: industrial facilities and sewage treatment plants.  Each has its own set of issues and their permits limit pollutants unique to their treatment processes.

We are currently developing compliance histories for each discharger, and class of dischargers, and are working to identify and document the issues impacting our right to fishable, swimmable, drinkable water.  Our data and research serves as our foundation as we develop solutions and address the issues we’ve documented.  What’s more, it also supports our role as a watchdog over permit holders and DHEC.  We do this work because each of us has a right to fish, swim, and enjoy our waterways without fear of pollution.