EPA rips SC agency for letting industry increase pollution near Black neighborhoods

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says South Carolina regulators allowed an industrial plant to increase air pollution near minority communities, in violation of federal law.

In a decision last week, the EPA said the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control didn’t follow federal requirements when it changed a permit for Century Aluminum to release more particulate matter near Charleston.

The EPA’s action has the effect of overturning DHEC’s decision, at least until the state department goes through a more thorough analysis and gives the public a chance to look at Century’s plan.

Federal decisions to intervene in state permit approvals are not common, but the EPA said its action was necessary.

DHEC did not require the level of public review needed to grant approval for such a change in pollutants to be released , according to the EPA. DHEC also did not clearly state in a public notice that there would be an increase in air pollution, the EPA said.

“The public was deprived from the opportunity to meaningfully participate on that air pollution control permit’’ decision, EPA Administrator Michael Regan wrote in the decision.

The EPA said DHEC’s decision allowed for a nearly 50 percent increase in particulate matter pollution that would be allowed at the plant. Particulate matter is often referred to as soot. DHEC also approved allowing an increase in sulfur dioxide pollution, environmentalists said.

Both pollutants can cause or worsen breathing problems for people exposed to elevated levels.

More than 40 percent of the people living within 3 miles of the Century plant are African American and 29 percent are considered low-income, the EPA Administrator’s Nov. 2 decision document says.

The Environmental Integrity Project, a national group that asked the EPA to review DHEC’s changes to Century’s permit, said those neighbors have been hit recently with ‘’large releases of aluminum oxide particles from the plant,’’ which is in the Mount Holly area of Berkeley County.

“The hazardous substance has rained down on their homes and cars, threatening their health and quality of life,’’ the project said in a news release.

Efforts to reach Century Aluminum and DHEC were not successful Tuesday afternoon, but environmentalists said the EPA decision was warranted for the smelting plant.

“Instead of requiring Century to invest in modern pollution controls for this old smelter, South Carolina tried to slip a major increase in dangerous particulate matter emissions and sulfur dioxide past the public in violation of the law,” said Jen Duggan, deputy director for the Environmental Integrity Project.

Bob Guild, a Columbia attorney involved in the challenge for the Sierra Club, said the EPA’s action isn’t common and shows how poorly DHEC weighed changes to the Century air pollution permit. But he said DHEC’s failures are nothing new in South Carolina.

The agency often sides with businesses, instead of the general public, on environmental issues, he said.

“They don’t want to make polluters mad,’’ Guild said.

Century Aluminum, which has operated for more than 40 years in the Lowcountry, in 2021 announced a $60 million expansion that would increase employment by more than 100 jobs. The plant employed more than 300 people at the time.

The company is one of the few aluminum smelting plants in the country.