With the start of boating season only a couple of months away, Hurricane Matthew storm debris continues to bob in Beaufort County’s waterways.
After a series of discussions over the past month among county leaders, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, the state has decided to take a hands-off approach helping in the clean-up effort.
We certainly want the recreational amenities that a lot us enjoy to be available to without the fear of running into something.
Deputy Beaufort County administrator Josh Gruber
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“Neither agency believes they are responsible, nor do they have the resources to engage in any sort of marine pick-up whatsoever,” deputy county administrator Josh Gruber said of SCDNR and SCDHEC earlier this week.
The county is now seeking an opinion from the S.C. Attorney General’s Office to definitively answer the question of “whose responsibility is it to go in and clean up these areas,” he said.
“It would be great if we could compel the state agencies” to remove debris on their own, Gruber said.
But if that doesn’t happen, local leaders are hoping the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse the county for clean-up costs estimated to potentially exceed $5 million.
In order to get FEMA reimbursement, the county “would have to demonstrate a legal obligation to clean these (marine) areas,” Gruber said. An opinion from the Attorney General would represent that legal obligation.
County administrator Gary Kubic said earlier this week that regardless of who does it, getting marine debris clean-up started quickly is critical “because we are coming up to boat season.”
Gruber agreed, emphasizing the potential danger of marine debris.
Even if much of the debris has been dragged into marshy areas, “high tides could push it right back out into navigable (portions of waterways),” he said. “We certainly want the recreational amenities that a lot us enjoy to be available to without the fear of running into something.”
SCDNR installed signs on local boat landings late last year warning boaters to slow down and be aware of damaged docks and debris in the water.
In addition to posing a threat to boaters and swimmers, the debris could harm the environment.
Because the Hurricane Matthew blew debris into the water indiscriminately, “we don’t know exactly what the debris is,” Kate Schaefer with the Coastal Conservation League said after the storm. “It could be plastics, or treated wood, or other things that can leach toxins.”
The county is in the process of seeking bids from contractors so they are prepared to start clean-up right away should the Attorney General decide in favor of the state.
“If its our legal obligation, lets get on it, get it done, and submit for (FEMA) reimbursement,” Beaufort County Councilman Gerald Dawson urged county staff.