“We have seen the enemy,” goes a favorite saying, “and he is us.”
That is the burden of Beaufort County and its fast-growing number of residents, businesses, roads and flyovers.
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It wasn’t always this way. In 1970, the enemy was much clearer.
As we recount in today’s newspaper and websites, the enemy at that pivotal time was a single behemoth — a petrochemical plant proposed for the banks of the Colleton River near Bluffton, and Hilton Head Island’s nascent development.
The proposed BASF industrial complex that would have taken Beaufort County down an entirely different economic path was seen as the saving grace for a poor county by many people, especially the political hierarchy here and in Columbia.
But we can look at it today and say we dodged a bullet when a small cadre of determined and smart people beat Goliath and fended off that intense industrial development. Without question, the environment that sets us apart would have been ruined. Our birthright would have been sold down a non-flushing river that would have been dredged to death and choked with 2.5 million gallons a day of who-knows-what because no one would ever really say.
The company line was parroted by the county and state leadership: Don’t worry. It’s all OK. We won’t do any harm. Trust us.
Thank goodness there were skeptics willing to fight back.
Retired journalist and Lowcountry native Charles Seabrook reported in his 2012 book, “The World of the Sea Marsh”:
“Later, a BASF executive reportedly acknowledged that pollution from the plant could indeed have done considerable damage to the surrounding estuary and marshes. The author of ‘German Industry and Global Enterprise, BASF: The History of the Company’ (2004) cited the minutes from an April 1970 company board meeting in which company officials acknowledged that it would be impossible to overcome pollution problems at Victoria Bluff because the plant would have to dispose of 80,000 tons of neutral salts a year, ‘a level beyond the carrying capacity of the Colleton River.’ ”
When BASF, to its credit, backed off, the die was cast for a deeply divided Beaufort County.
The industry that transformed the county from deep poverty to an enviable prosperity and quality of life would have fewer smokestacks and infinitely more rooftops.
And therein lies today’s problem. We are the heavy industry. And we can sell that same birthright down the river with much subtler pollution.
Through the ensuing decades of breakneck resort and residential development, the public has heard a familiar line with each new project: Don’t worry. It’s all OK. We won’t do any harm. Trust us.
Today, the cumulative effect of all this development in such a watery county exceeds what science says the rivers can handle.
Much has been done to mitigate the damage, thanks in large part to generation after generation of smart and determined activists, God bless them all.
But the environment remains in peril and the need for activists, and responsible corporate and individual citizens, is as great as ever.
We need to increase public land-buying and the purchase of development rights. We need to decrease density.
We need to understand, as they did in 1970, that this is not Chicago, for crying out loud. And we must act like it. The rules are different here. We must be willing to say “no” when it is not the popular thing to do.