Jellyfish processing operation eyeing former chemical plant site in Seabrook

emoody@beaufortgazette.comDecember 23, 2013 

A group interested in catching and processing cannonball jellyfish wants to open a plant in Seabrook on the site of a former chemical plant where highly toxic PCBs have been found.

The group includes Steven Giese, who previously represented a different company, Millenarian, that wanted to collect jellyballs at the town of Port Royal's public docks and process them at a plant in another, undetermined place in Beaufort County. That plan fell apart when Port Royal Town Council learned of Giese's history of financial problems.

But Giese is part of a new group with a permit applications under review by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, as well as Beaufort County. Carolina Jelly Balls LLC's application indicates that it aims to be up and running in early 2014.

Paul Yang, who is listed in incorporation papers as chief executive officer of Millenarian, is listed as vice president and co-owner of Carolina Jelly Balls. Giese is listed as Carolina Jelly Balls' project coordinator, as he was for Millenarian, and is the spokesman for the group.

Giese said in a text message that the area of the property at 23 John Meeks Way that Carolina Jelly Balls intends to use is not contaminated with PCBs. He said he would not be available for further comment until later this week.

"Jellyball" is a colloquial name for a cannonball jellyfish. It is dried, similar to jerky, and sold for consumption, mostly in Asia.

If allowed to build a processing plant at the former ArrMaz Custom Chemical plant site at 23 John Meeks Way in Seabrook, Carolina Jelly Balls would bring about 80 to 100 permanent jobs and 30 to 40 temporary construction jobs to Beaufort County, according to a DHEC wastewater permit application. The application also estimates the business would inject about $3 million annually into the local economy.

But first, about $250,000 worth of construction needs to be done on the site, according to the application. Last spring, Millenarian received an experimental permit from DNR, which gave the company two years to prove jellyfish processing is a viable industry for South Carolina, Giese said at the time.

ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS

PCBs and other chemicals have been found in the soil and water around the property Carolina Jelly Balls hopes to set up shop.

A hot-oil circulating system used by a division of Tenneco Chemical, which once operated there, leaked PCB into the plant's wastewater system and burn site. In 1983, DHEC investigations found animals in Campbell Creek had been moderately to severely affected by contaminated wastewater discharged into the creek.

The property was used by several chemical-manufacturing companies between 1967 and 2009, including Lobeco Products, American Color and Chemical and, most recently, Arrmaz Custom Chemical. In 2009 the property was purchased by Florida-based Coastal Demolition, which still owns the property, according to Beaufort County property records. Primary products during the five decades included agricultural chemicals, dyes and specialty chemicals, according to a DHEC report.

In 2012, DHEC assessed the property and reported its findings to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The agency's report noted the site has been "greatly stabilized, and there is now significantly less concern from possible leaks/spills or trespass danger."

However, unpermitted demolition in 2011 led to investigations by DHEC, Beaufort County and EPA.

And PCBs are still detected in nearby marshes.

A breakdown of finances provided to the county by Carolina Jelly Balls includes a $153,000 contract with Patterson Construction Co. for engineering and renovation, another $34,740 for site development to date and $270,000 in property improvement and development planned for 2014.

EYE ON SEABROOK

A timeline provided to Beaufort County by Carolina Jelly Balls shows Giese and partners have been working to acquire and ready the Seabrook processing plant for months. In October, they bought the title for the property for $112,275 and hired engineer and former DHEC Bureau of Water Pollution Control chief Bob Gross as their liaison for environmental agencies.

The plant would process about 200,000 to 250,000 pounds of jellyfish a week, according to the DHEC wastewater permit application. About 250,000 gallons of wastewater a day could be discharged into Campbell Creek, which leads into the Whale Branch and Coosaw rivers, according to the application.

"Since the discharge of seafood-processing wastewater is much more compatible with Campbell Creek than treated organic chemical wastewater, no adverse effects ... are anticipated," the application reads.

High-salinity water mixed with 2 percent alum -- which makes water saltier -- will be used to dehydrate the jellyballs. The water would be filtered through a screen before discharge, which would only occur on outgoing tides. Carolina Jelly Balls would use the existing ArrMaz above-ground wastewater treatment tanks, discharge pump station and in-stream diffuser, according to the application.

That concerns oysterman Frank Roberts, whose oyster nursery is just 1,500 yards from the discharge point.

Roberts has been building up Lady's Island Oyster Farm for several years. He's worried that discharge from the jellyfish plant would elevate PCB levels and push the toxins farther downstream, toward his oysters.

PCB has been demonstrated to cause cancer in animals, and some studies have suggested a link between PCB and certain forms of cancer in humans, as well.

"This is the poorest part of the county," Roberts said. "That water is a food source, it is an income source, it's a way of life here. If they blow that river up, what are they going to say to the people who live here, work here and depend on it?"

PUBLIC PROCESS

DHEC and the Beaufort County planning department are considering applications related to the jellyball plant, several of which will include opportunities for public input.

The county has requested more information for the Development Review Team application and will hold public meetings to discuss the proposal after it has reviewed Carolina Jelly Balls' application, county planning director Tony Criscitiello said.

"Certainly the site is an industrial site, so there is not a use issue, per se," he said. "But the process of discharging into the body of water is going to be a concern."

DHEC is considering an application for a Brownsfield Voluntary Cleanup Contract, which provides financial incentives to companies that acquire and help clean up contaminated properties. Brownsfield properties are those that could be developed and reused, but are contaminated or possibly contaminated.

Public notice and a 30-day public comment period are required before the contract can be signed, according to state law.

The wastewater application is also under review, and no treatment requirements have been determined, Beasley said. If there is significant public interest, a public hearing will be scheduled.

FIRST FAILED ATTEMPT

Millenarian's plans to open a processing plant in Gardens Corner also raised environmental concerns for would-be neighbors. The company responded with a vow to build its processing facility elsewhere -- on St. Helena Island, perhaps -- but the point appeared moot after the company failed to reach a deal with the town of Port Royal to take over its docks for use as a collection point.

Town Council members decided instead to hire a dock manager after shrimpers in Florida told them about bankruptcy proceedings involving Giese and his son, whom Giese wanted to involve in the jellyball business. The shrimpers also claimed the Gieses owed them money.

After learning about the financial problems, council members asked Giese to provide information and an indemnity agreement that would hold blameless the town and the S.C. State Ports Authority, which owns the property, if the venture failed.

Giese's group never produced the requested materials, however, town manager Van Willis said.

Giese's new group has indicated it might still try to use Port Royal's docks or an unnamed St. Helena Island property as a place for boats to unload jellyfish for shipment to a processing plant. Willis said the town's dock manager, Joey Morris, and Giese have discussed a potential agreement that would allow the unloading.

Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.

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