Proposed industrial park in Bucksport pits environmentalists against developers, neighbor against neighbor

dwren@thesunnews.comApril 13, 2014 

  • The proposal

    • Grand Strand Water and Sewer Authority wants to build an industrial marine commerce facility at 135 Bucksport Rd., the site of the current Bucksport Marina. The industrial park would accommodate boat building enterprises, bulk cargo industry and heavy transport barge operations.

    • The proposed construction activities involve filling one-tenth of an acre of wetlands and dredging 40,000 cubic yards of material from the Waccamaw River. Plans include the construction of new docks and piers and a road connecting the marina to U.S. 701. About 141 acres – in parcels ranging from 10 acres to 36 acres – would be leased to industry with the remaining land used for a marine common area and stormwater retention.

    • The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is reviewing the authority’s permit application. There is no timetable for that review to be completed.

    • If the environmental permitting is approved, it could take about a year for construction of the park.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of occasional stories about the growing dichotomy between environmental concerns and economic development in Horry County and along the Waccamaw Neck. Information for this story was compiled from interviews, documents, newspaper archives and statements made during a March 10 public hearing in Conway.

Like the traits and traditions that bind a family’s generations together, the Waccamaw River has etched its place in James Frazier’s family for nearly a century – both giving and taking life while remaining a steadfast friend.

But now, a proposal to build a 195-acre, industrial park along the river at the Bucksport Marina site, has divided this historically black community, putting Frazier at odds with some of his neighbors and environmentalists who are opposed to the plan.

The industrial park, touted by some as a job-creating savior to this economically depressed area, could be home to industries such as yacht manufacturers. It could bring hometown jobs to residents who now commute to Conway or Myrtle Beach to make a living.

Some fear the industrial park, and the dredging needed to create it, could damage the river or bring even more development that might spell an end to Bucksport’s identity.

Frazier – who, at 76 years old come Thursday, is almost as much a part of Bucksport as the river itself – thinks the park is a good idea.

Born and raised in Bucksport, Frazier has represented the community of 876 people on Horry County Council for 31 years, longer than any other council member. The local community center bears his name.

“I’ve always wanted to see something in the community. Always,” he said. “I would be happy to see industry back down there on that river, to tell you the truth.”

Frazier’s life story never strays far from the Waccamaw’s banks.

His great grandmother worked the river’s rice fields for 20 cents a day until she saved enough money to buy six acres of land that remains with her heirs today. Childhood dinners at his grandmother’s house regularly included a fresh catch from the river.

“They had sacks full of fish,” Frazier said. “That’s how we survived, it’s how we survived.”

The river also claimed the life of Frazier’s uncle.

Frazier calls Dec. 24, 1945, the longest day of his life. His uncle, a cousin and his uncle’s best friend decided that day to cross the river to hunt deer for Christmas dinner. Their boat capsized and two of the men never came back.

“Uncle Arthur went down and come up; he had his short boots off,” Frazier said. “But his friend, Jim Henderson, had on hip boots. He went down, his boots got filled and he didn’t come back up. And Uncle Arthur turned around to go help Mr. Jim and they both drowned.”

To Frazier, the river is a constant. And it can take care of itself.

“Don’t worry about the Waccamaw River,” he said. “God put it there. He put the fish in it. It’s going to be there until God goes home, and he ain’t going home.”

Environmentalists’ growing clout

Environmentalists say the industrial park could permanently damage the river Frazier loves, along with its fish and the wildlife around it.

“I certainly respect the comments about God and the Waccamaw River belonging to God,” said Michael Corley, a lawyer with the S.C. Environmental Law Project in Georgetown. “But the Sampit River down in Georgetown, God created that, too, and I dare you to even fish out of there.”

In addition to the Waccamaw River, environmentalists say they worry about impacts to the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge – which sits across the river from where the park would be built – and potentially to drinking water. One of Horry County’s major drinking water sources is the Bull Creek intake just south of the planned facility.

“The potential exists for significant impacts to water quality resulting from stormwater runoff, fuel spills and the accidental release of transferred bulk materials into adjacent waters,” said Elizabeth Weems, a spokeswoman for the League of Women Voters in South Carolina. “Lastly, establishment of a bulk cargo and heavy barge transport operations in the Waccamaw River will likely result in future dredging and other shoreline modifications to maintain the facility.”

Such environmental concerns once were held in little regard in Horry County – a place where developers regularly dug long trenches through their property to drain wetlands so more homes and shops could dot the landscape. In recent years, however, environmentalists here have been flexing their muscles.

Last year, they forced state-owned electric utility Santee Cooper to agree to move 1.3 million tons of coal ash from ponds at the Grainger electric plant along the Waccamaw River in Conway. Santee Cooper – one of the developers of the proposed Bucksport industrial park, along with Grand Strand Water & Sewer Authority – had originally planned to leave the coal ash in place at the idled electric plant.

Before that, environmentalists helped force electronics manufacturer AVX Corp. – once this area’s largest private employer – to clean up groundwater in a Myrtle Beach neighborhood that had been polluted with a carcinogenic degreaser.

Their success in delaying construction of I-73 in South Carolina – a highway environmentalists say is unnecessary and would ruin wetlands and rural businesses – has gotten under the skin of politicians and I-73 supporters, who call the environmentalists “anti-progress forces.”

Environmental groups now are targeting the industrial park in Bucksport, questioning the need for the facility and its developers’ plans to dredge about 40,000 cubic yards of material from the Waccamaw River so large commercial vessels can navigate the waters. In addition, developers want to fill one-tenth of an acre of tidal freshwater wetlands with 1,705 cubic yards of material to construct a bulkhead.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is reviewing a permit application for the dredging and recently requested additional information about the project from its developers, according to agency spokesman Jim Beasley. It is not clear when a final decision on the application will be handed down.

Environmentalists have asked DHEC to put the permit application on hold and force developers to conduct an environmental impact study for their project. Without such a study, DHEC cannot fulfill its legal obligation to consider the direct and indirect impacts the industrial park could have on the river, said Nancy Cave, north coast director for the Coastal Conservation League.

Beasley said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers already has decided that no environmental impact study is required, and DHEC has no plans to request one for its review.

The issue ultimately could be decided by a judge. Environmentalists increasingly are using the courts system to force developers and regulators to follow the letter of the law.

“It’s impossible for DHEC to carry out its mandatory duty in following these regulations when so much about this project remains unanswered,” Corley said.

A community in need of jobs

The park’s supporters are pitching the prospects of good-paying manufacturing jobs and a chance to keep this area’s brightest at home rather than having them leave Horry County for suitable work elsewhere. Plans include the construction of new docks and piers, a new road connecting the marina to U.S. 701 and 141 acres leased to industry in parcels ranging from 10 acres to 36 acres apiece.

“This is about quality of life,” said Mark Lazarus, chairman of Horry County Council. “It’s also about jobs, jobs, jobs for this area. We’re all working together for a common cause, for a common good, for the betterment of the people of Horry County.”

Bennie Swans, chairman of the Carolina African Heritage Foundation, said he is “sick and tired of seeing young men in the afternoon, walking around dazed and complaining about jobs.”

“We know that unemployment is a pipeline to prison,” Swans said. “We know that people cannot put a roof over their head or food on the table without a job.”

Although Bucksport’s unemployment rate is comparable to Horry County’s as a whole, the community has a much lower median annual household income – $26,971 in Bucksport compared with $42,183 county-wide – according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than one-third of Bucksport’s residents live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared with 18 percent in all of Horry County.

“We’ve got too many of our children who are leaving,” Lazarus said. “We’ve got too many of our children who are getting in trouble for one reason or another because they don’t have any hope in this area. The only way they’re going to have hope is if we create jobs.”

That sounds good to Levon Hicks, a Bucksport resident who has commuted about 12 miles to Conway for 30 years for a job with Spann Roofing.

“I’m for it,” Hicks said of the industrial park. “I would love to see more jobs down here.”

For Corley, however, the promise of new jobs rings hollow.

“We’ve heard some pretty bold claims,” he said. “Hundreds of jobs. Your grandchildren working at this place. Maybe I missed it, but I haven’t seen any proof to back up any of these claims.”

Corley points to a feasibility study paid for by Grand Strand Water & Sewer Authority that appears to downplay the park’s potential for success. That report states that the best manufacturing fit for such a park would be oversized, excessive load cargo that can’t be transported by road or rail.

“How small of a market are we talking about?” Corley said. “Something that’s too large to be transported by roadway or rail and the only viable way to get it around is by water? This report doesn’t identify a single possible manufacturer or a single possible product that fits within that description.”

Such skepticism is short-sighted, according to the industrial park’s supporters.

“There is no other location along the coast of South Carolina that offers what this site offers in terms of boat building opportunities and barging opportunities,” said Barry Jurs, Santee Cooper’s economic development facilities planner. “What else does it offer? Peace and prosperity.”

Industrial park supporters say that in the world of economic development, the “build it and they will come” model is the only one that works.

“The process that one has to go through to build a project like this doesn’t take days or weeks – it takes years,” said Mike Wooten, a civil engineer and president of DDC Engineers Inc. in Myrtle Beach, which has built a half-dozen industrial parks throughout South Carolina. “So when you have the opportunity for an industry that’s coming to the area and they’re looking for a place to be and you tell them, ‘Well, we’ll have one, it’s right there in Bucksport, but it’s going to take us 10 years,’ it doesn’t work that way in today’s environment.”

Doug Wendel, former president of Myrtle Beach developer Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc. and a member of the Horry County Economic Development Corp.’s board of directors, said “you’ve got to have product” before industry can be recruited.

“Once we get the product, we will go out and we will recruit industry to come in,” he said.

Suspicions and skepticism

Some Bucksport residents say they are wary of outsiders, especially rich, white developers who want to tell them what’s best for their community.

“I’ve seen places where big businesses move in and the blacks move out,” said Donald Gause. “When the dollar moves in, it don’t care where it pushes and shoves.”

Diane Mercier, a Bucksport native whose family ties to that area span generations, said she’s skeptical that any new jobs would go to people in her community.

“The Bucksport community has been told that the industrial park will produce jobs. When and for whom?,” Mercier said. “There have been meetings about the park, but we all go away with no answers, only more confusion. We get words written in the sand, and you know what happens when the tide comes in – the words get washed away.”

The threat of broken promises is a common fear here.

“I’m for anything that enhances the life of the people in Bucksport,” said Leatha Carson, who was born in the community and then returned after a 40-year career in New York with the U.S. Postal Service. “That doesn’t seem to be what happens when developers move into these communities. They bring in jobs and they bring in people to fill those jobs, but the people in the community become invisible.”

Glenn Graham is like many of this community’s residents – open to prospects of an industrial park as long as Bucksport isn’t pushed aside.

“This town has been here a long time,” Graham said, a lifelong resident. “There’s a lot of history here. For someone to come in here and shut us out would be un-American. If you’re going to do it, do it right. But don’t push us out.”

Graham’s aunt, Clara Graham, worries about the environmental impact of the proposed industrial park, and she doesn’t want the higher taxes or increased traffic that could come with an industrial park.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” she said. “I built a home here and raised four children here. I don’t want anything to interfere with my home.”

Development fears return

There also is fear that the industrial park could open the door to widespread development in this mostly rural slice of Horry County, forever altering Bucksport’s nature.

“We’re not against change, but we are concerned about our community,” said Harold Phillips, another born-and-raised Bucksport resident. “We’re not against jobs, but we are concerned about our community. Most of the people here have lived a quiet, peaceful life.”

Bucksport has faced development fears before.

In the early 1990s, a group of wealthy landowners including textile magnate Roger Milliken and E. Craig Wall Jr. – president of Conway-based forest products company Canal Industries Inc. – owned the land where the industrial park is now proposed. They had plans for residential neighborhoods, golf courses and other commercial projects on the property, but those plans were scuttled by opposition to a bridge over Bull Creek that would have linked the property to Sandy Island.

The developers ultimately sold the land – which encompasses 4,464 acres including the proposed industrial park site – to Grand Strand Water & Sewer Authority in 1999.

Cave, with the Coastal Conservation League, and other environmentalists say access to that property could be opened up by a proposed but unfunded road called the Southern Evacuation Lifeline, which would link U.S. 17 Bypass south of Surfside Beach to U.S. 701 via a bridge across the Waccamaw River. Cave and others say the industrial park could be the first step to a bridge linking sleepy Bucksport directly to the bustling Grand Strand.

While developers say there are no plans for a bridge linking Bucksport to the Grand Strand, it’s hard to find a resident here who hasn’t heard the rumors.

“They have to have a bridge,” Cave said. “That’s the only way that land becomes valuable. It would put that property just 10 minutes from the beach.”

Fred Richardson, executive director of Grand Strand Water & Sewer Authority, scoffs at the notion.

Richardson said there are no development possibilities for the property, much less any bridge plans, because the authority is using most of the land for a 10 million-gallon-per-day wastewater plant, a water treatment facility, a large composting facility, a sod farm and other related projects that he said can’t be put anywhere else. Aside from that and land set aside for the industrial park, Richardson said the rest of the property is undevelopable wetlands.

Looking for a middle ground

Lloyd Sherman, a 61-year-old Bucksport resident, has met several times with his neighbors to debate the industrial park’s pros and cons. It was after one of those meetings, Sherman said, that Bucksport’s need for decent jobs became crystal clear.

“It hadn’t been 15 minutes after I stepped out of the meeting that I called my good friend and I said, ‘Fred, I can’t get to my own house,’ ” Sherman said. “He said, ‘What’s the matter?’ A drug shooting. A young man got shot, bullets were flying on down the street and hit my wife. She can’t walk. She’s crippled.”

To Sherman, Bucksport’s future can go one of two ways: “Work, or do you want drugs in the community?”

“We need jobs in Bucksport,” Sherman said. “We need positive things.”

For others, however, nothing can be more positive than good health and a clean environment.

“We want progress, but we do not want the industrial marina park in Bucksport that will pollute our water, pollute the land and damage our health,” Mercier said. “We have the everyday sickness as it is without mankind inducing more sickness on us.”

Frazier, who announced in February that he will run for another four-year term on Horry County Council, hopes eventually to bring the two sides together.

“People ask me how in the name of God have you stayed on that council for 31 years?” Frazier said. “Working with the others who are on the council and working with the people of this great county of ours. You’ve got to work together, whether in church, in homes, in the community anywhere.

If re-elected, Frazier said he hopes to see industrial park move forward before the end of his next term.

“My grandma lived to be 94 years old and she always told us ‘don’t give up the goal unless you have to,’ ” Frazier said. “Hang in there. And that’s what we intend to do.”

Contact DAVID WREN at 626-0281.

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