Monday, December 18, 2017 Blog

Septic tank = Ocean? The flawed case for Arctic oil. Shame and anger over plastics. Progress at Surfside! Disrespecting North Charleston? Money for flooding. Nuclear plant = 1/2 the price of the Civil War. Kneel-in!


I’ll begin this week’s news summary with the topic “politicians who say things that don’t seem to make sense.”

This article from the Post and Courier reports that despite abundant evidence that offshore seismic testing and oil drilling threaten South Carolina’s tourism economy and the coastal environment on which it depends, Georgetown Senator Stephen Goldfinch is all for it.

Post and Courier: As many oppose coastal gas and oil exploration, South Carolina Sen. Stephen Goldfinch doubles down

Senator Goldfinch explains his point of view with an interesting analogy – digging up a septic tank in your backyard. If there was a chance you could find five dollars under it, you wouldn’t dig it up. But if there were potentially a million dollars under it, you would. It’s hard to argue with that!

Senator Goldfinch says he speaks for the “silent contingent” of people who support drilling, but who have chosen to remain silent. They are silent, he believes, because they are afraid of becoming “pariahs,” because of a “loud, squeaky minority” of environmentalists (who presumably decide who is and isn’t a pariah…)

Countering Senator Goldfinch’s arguments, Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus and Murrells Inlet Rep. Lee Hewitt warn of potential harm to commercial fisheries and note that every local government on the coast has gone on record opposing testing and drilling. (These local governments apparently were not aware of the silent contingent or the million-dollar septic tank…)

From the article:

Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus worried that seismic testing could disrupt fish populations crucial to local commercial fishermen. The overwhelming response he receives across the county is in opposition to drilling and exploration, he said.

State Rep. Lee Hewitt, R-Murrells Inlet, represents much of the same area as Goldfinch’s Senate district. He said voters frequently thank him for his opposition to drilling.

“Every single county and municipality within my district has passed a resolution opposing it,” Hewitt said.

Also on oil extraction in sensitive areas, Congressman Mark Sanford joins National Audubon Society president David Yarnold with a persuasive editorial in The Hill condemning drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (a provision for this is included in the tax reform bill).

The Hill: Sanford & Yarnold editorial: Why drilling in the Arctic doesn’t add up

Sanford and Yarnold point out the flaws in the leasing program’s revenue projections. They summarize the situation this way:

So, let’s take that step back: we’re proposing ending 60 years of Republican and Democratic protection in one of the most prolific wildlife nurseries on the planet to make 5 percent -10 percent of the revenue that we’re promising the American people — all so we can export it to Asia? It’s math that doesn’t add up. But it’s not too late to turn back – especially when it doesn’t pay to go forward.

That makes sense.

It is also painfully easy to understand the tragedy of plastic in the ocean. I visited the Turks and Caicos for three days a few weeks ago and kayaked along the eastern shore of those islands. The beautiful beaches were more than littered – “covered” captures it better – with plastic debris. Some of the soft drink containers had Asian script on them. I’m pretty sure they were from North Korea. (Just kidding. I can’t read Korean.)

This next article, from the BBC, reports that the producers of the excellent series, Blue Ocean, expressed “shame and anger” over the extent of contamination.

BBC: ‘Shame and anger’ at plastic ocean pollution

From the article:

Most shocking is the effect of party balloons, released in a moment of celebration, but then catching the eye of a fulmar searching for food.

Dr. Quinn remembers one occasion when she dissected one of the birds.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes, seeing a balloon in the bird’s oesophagus, which would have killed it, along with cling film, toothbrushes and packaging – I feel extremely sad for the birds and impatient to do something,” she said.

No more birthday balloons, ok?! And some great news – according to WPDE, the Surfside Beach Town Council is supporting a plastic bag ban like the ones Isle of Palms and Folly Beach passed. Surfside would be the first beach on the Grand Strand to take this substantively and symbolically important step in reducing the planetary glut of plastic.

WPDE: Surfside Beach Council backs plastic bag ban

Beaufort County is moving forward with a similar ordinance, which requires the towns of Beaufort, Port Royal, Hilton Head and Bluffton to pass their own bans. And these are proceeding apace! (Bluffton is dragging its feet but we are optimistic.)

Re: politicians saying strange things, this article from the Post and Courier provides an update on North Charleston’s annexation spree in the Ashley River historic district (on the other side of the river from the city). The first parcel annexed was 110 acres adjacent to Magnolia Gardens, between Drayton Hall and Middleton Place. The latest is one acre directly across Highway 61.

Problematically for North Charleston, it is also on the other side of a strip of land along the road that is part of the city of Charleston. This makes the annexation illegal under state law, a point North Charleston officials dispute.

Post and Courier: North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey defends his West Ashley annexation plans

Post and Courier: North Charleston agrees to expand its city limits by 1 acre, but not without some drama

Why are they doing this, one might ask? The motivating emotion (in contrast to “logic”) is that Mayor Summey and at least one other council member feel the rest of the region has been disrespectful and condescending to North Charleston. Their feelings have been hurt.

And the mayor is still seething – 16 years later – over Charleston Mayor Joe Riley’s annexation of Daniel Island. They “bristle” at the idea that North Charleston doesn’t know what’s best for the historic Ashley.

From the articles:

“That’s the attitude people took,” Summey said, “That North Charleston didn’t know how to develop.”

“The last time I checked, the city of Charleston came down the river and went and annexed a place called Daniel Island and other things, and nobody in North Charleston complained about it,” Summey said.

The notion that North Charleston already has a development plan for the 2,200 acres and the assumption that the development would be irresponsible feels like “jingoism,” said Councilman Ron Brinson.

“It seems that it’s with almost borderline condescension that we can’t handle that,” he said. “We’re smart enough to address flooding issues, aren’t we? We’re smart enough to address traffic issues, aren’t we?” (If they are, that would put them in a category of one among all cities in South Carolina…)

Sadly, this type of municipal identity politics is as harmful as it is false. North Charleston is physically and commercially the heart of the tri-county region. Virtually everyone I know wants the city to be successful. (Many Conservation League staffers are North Charleston residents.) But year after year, Mayor Summey has played the “fortress North Charleston” card, presumably bolstering his profile with voters, to the continuing detriment of the city.

Political stunts like this annexation distract from efforts to allow North Charleston to realize its full potential at a time when no city on the coast can afford to become distracted.

Mayor Summey makes one argument that purports to make sense, but it doesn’t:

The mayor told The Post and Courier on Friday that North Charleston needs to expand its city limits because its cost of providing services to current residents will increase regardless, and without expansion, taxes will increase or services will get cut. That’s why City Council accepted a donation of 1 acre across the Ashley River in November and voted Thursday to annex the land.

It should go without saying, (but I will say it anyway), that 50 years of evidence exists showing that this type of growth, in remote locations, far from existing infrastructure, is the single biggest money losing proposition a city can undertake. It is a money pit, and the surest way to precipitate tax increases.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg responds to Mayor Summey’s arguments this way:

“No. 1, this attempted annexation has no precedent under South Carolina law,” Tecklenburg said. “No. 2, the land in question is beyond the Urban Growth Boundary — the line where intense development in Charleston County is supposed to end.”

“And No. 3, adding large-scale development in an area that already has serious flooding and traffic problems just defies common sense and would do real harm to the residents who live nearby.”

Poor North Charleston!

On the subject of municipal finance, Charleston blogger Jay Williams, Jr. has written one of the clearest explanations of how to raise more money for critical needs like flooding. It ran in the Charleston Mercury last week.

Charleston Mercury: Williams editorial: Let’s celebrate tourism’s bounty — and tax it.

The short story is that tourism, specifically of the cruise ship variety, is a logical source of revenue.

Says Jay:

The ultimate tourism parasite

Cruise ships represent just five percent of the State Port Authority’s (SPA) income, but they represent zero percent of Charleston’s city income! The port of Charleston might be the only port in the country that doesn’t charge a passenger head-tax that goes to the city. So from all those passengers, up to 3,500 per ship with 104 ships visiting Charleston annually, Charleston gets … nothing. Zip.

The potential number of passengers coming here annually is 364,000, nearly triple the population of Charleston.

On that theme, Post and Courier columnist Steve Bailey warns that Charleston’s flooding problems will only get worse if the City Council is left to its own devices.

Post and Courier: Bailey editorial: Council backs off flood control for W. Ashley beautification

From the article:

For anyone under the illusion that those calling the shots at City Hall have finally gotten religion about fixing the flooding, I refer you to the show last week in the ornate council chambers. In 15 minutes, Councilman Bill Moody gave us a concise, if costly, lesson in just how wrong you are.

Steve reports that a surprise surplus in the city budget, initially targeted to help repair the Low Battery, (a threshold – so to speak – investment in Charleston’s survival), was redirected to a track at Stoney Field and beautification West of the Ashley.

This is a political problem the core of which is that the cost of flooding remediation vastly exceeds the funding available. We need not to divert what we have, and we need a lot more money. The good news is that we know where to get it. It’s just a matter of building the political support to go after it.

If you are interested in getting involved with a citizen’s group dedicated to doing exactly that, email Groundswell at

Finally, almost, the Post and Courier has produced a Pulitzer-quality piece on the demise of the SCANA/Santee Cooper nuclear plant, and revealed that South Carolina was not alone in being duped by utility lobbyists, who convinced legislatures in 11 states to legalize front-loaded rate increases. In four of those states, utility decisions like the one to build the Jenkinsville plant collectively flushed almost $40 billion down the drain. It truly boggles the mind.

Post and Courier: Power Failure: How utilities across the U.S. changed the rules to make big bets with your money

From the article:

Over the past decade, state legislatures across the country rewrote rule books for how power companies pay for new power plants, shifting financial risks away from electric companies to you and everyone else.

This rule change ignited a bonfire of risky spending — $40 billion so far on new power plants and upgrades, a Post and Courier investigation found.

Flush with your cash, utilities tried to build plants with unproven technology; they launched projects with unfinished designs and unrealistic budgets; they misled regulators and the public with schedules that promised bogus completion dates; they hid damning reports from investors and the public; they tried to silence critics and whistleblowers.

Then, when delays and cost overruns couldn’t be ignored, they asked state regulators to charge you more for their failures.

And what happened to these high-stakes gamblers?

Over the past five years, executive teams of six utilities that bet on these plants won $520 million in salaries, bonuses and other personal compensation, the newspaper found.

The next piece on this subject, by me, is from the Post and Courier.

Post and Courier: Legislature must provide real reforms for electric power

It points out that had the $9 billion SCANA and Santee Cooper lost been invested in solar energy and efficiency, it could have provided more than one tenth of the state’s power needs, with no risk, no front loading, and no debt. The bright spot here is that there is no time like the present to redirect the energy path our state has been on for a century.

Finally, a wonderful article from the Island Packet about a new book on the desegregation of Southern churches, featuring one of our friends who played a key role in that effort.

Island Packet: Hilton Head woman’s knees felt like jelly when she helped integrate America at a church ‘kneel-in’

Emma Campbell, who is married to our former board member, Emory, tells about the experience of a “kneel-in” in Alabama. And an archival picture of her at the church door in Jackson, Mississippi is the cover shot!

The message is that times have been bleak before. But people like Emma and Emory labored for the changes we take for granted today. In Emma’s inspiring words:

“We’re suffering from that same kind of pressure right now: people who want to do right, but society seems to want to hold them at bay,” she said.

She said, “It seems that to keep what you’ve got, you just have to keep at it. You can’t ever relax.”

So take heart, go forth and kneel-in!


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