For decades, fertilizer plants polluted SC salt marsh. Now, ExxonMobil pays the price

Source: State (Columbia, SC), July 25, 2019
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Energy giant ExxonMobil has agreed to pay federal and state agencies $6.6 million to settle a lawsuit over pollution that killed marine life and degraded salt marshes in South Carolina’s Lowcountry.
Old fertilizer plant sites the company acquired two decades ago released a cocktail of heavy metals while they operated along the Ashley River near Charleston and the Beaufort River near Port Royal, records show. The contamination, which affected about 100 acres of salt marsh along the rivers, may date as far back as the late 1800s, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Now, ExxonMobil is making amends with the U.S. government.
The settlement with federal agencies, approved June 26 by U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, is significant because it holds one of the nation’s major energy corporations accountable for contamination at sites the company is responsible for. And it provides money to help improve the Lowcountry’s environment.
Government natural resource agencies plan to use most of the $6.6 million ExxonMobil is paying to restore salt marshes and oyster reefs that have been degraded or lost through the years to development, NOAA officials said. Federal agencies already have cleaned up much of the contaminated land in Charleston and Beaufort counties, according NOAA.
Pollution from the fertilizer process included mercury, arsenic, lead, copper and zinc, all of which can kill certain types of marine life. A lawsuit filed May 1 by the federal government says the chemical release “damaged or destroyed fish, shellfish, aquatic animals, wildlife or plant life.” NOAA says various species of shrimp, blue crabs and fish depend on salt marshes for survival.
“Some of the contamination there was done a long time ago,” said NOAA biologist Howard Schnabolk, who said the settlement turns a sad tale into one with a potentially positive outcome. His agency is among those that will be working on details of the marsh and oyster reef restoration plans in coming months. Those plans will be put out for public comment before they are finalized.
“The best option would be to literally create new salt marsh,” he said. “So many coastal areas or marsh areas around the country have been filled in, or the tides have been cut off.”
Efforts to reach a spokeswoman for ExxonMobil were unsuccessful, but the company said in May that it takes its responsibility for environmental protection seriously and is glad to help restore wetlands in the state’s Lowcountry. Generally, companies that acquire polluted land are responsible for the contamination, whether they caused it or not.
Fertilizer plants once thrived in South Carolina, particularly in the Lowcountry, as the nation developed. The area had a natural source of materials in which to make fertilizer, and the industry became one of the state’s most important in the late 19th Century, according to a NOAA website.
But the process also proved to be among the nastiest in South Carolina.
Records show that Exxon owns or has owned at least nine old fertilizer plant sites, including some in the Greenville area, but five of the sites were not deemed to pose a substantial threat to the environment, said NOAA’s Kevin Kirsch, who helped investigate the impact of the contamination.
ExxonMobil is one of the world’s largest publicly traded companies, producing energy and operating chemical manufacturing businesses. The company explores for oil and natural gas on six continents and conducts research on “next-generation” technologies, according to the company’s website.

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