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How a diverse band of locals won Beaufort County’s biggest environmental battle

The Capt. Dave arrives in Washington, D.C., in 1970 after a highly publicized trip from Hilton Head Island to oppose a petrochemical plant planned for Victoria Bluff near Bluffton.
The Capt. Dave arrives in Washington, D.C., in 1970 after a highly publicized trip from Hilton Head Island to oppose a petrochemical plant planned for Victoria Bluff near Bluffton. Islander magazine of Hilton Head Island

“It’s Official! Plans Announced,” screamed a banner headline in The Beaufort Gazette of Oct. 2, 1969.

BASF, the international chemical giant based in Germany, announced it was going to build a $100 million petrochemical plant on Victoria Bluff near Bluffton. It would expand to an industrial complex with an investment as high as $400 million, the biggest manufacturing fish ever landed by the state of South Carolina, even for that era of New South boosterism.

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The political hierarchy of Beaufort County and Columbia was euphoric. It would cure the abject poverty in the county — where it was reported that children had worms, and adults were malnourished and illiterate.

Had it gone through, the Beaufort County that exists today would never have happened. But environmentalism — and the county’s tourism/real estate economy — eventually won the fight that set us along our current path.

BASF’s plans were huge. The company said it would employ 1,000 people working with a wide range of chemical and plastic materials used by manufacturers of textiles, furniture, paper, plastic articles and many other products.

Spinoff benefits for the sleepy Bluffton area would include 650 more non-manufacturing jobs, 1,000 new households, 910 more school children, $7 million more in personal income, a population growth of 3,700 and about 1,000 new vehicle registrations.

The complex would sit on 1,800 bucolic acres that had been hawked to industry for a decade with no takers. In months of secret negotiations, the state promised it would:

▪  Build large docks on the Colleton River, which would require dredging.

▪  Train workers.

▪  Put in a 13.5-mile railroad spur to the site and cut a new road from Beaufort to Bluffton over Callawassie Island.

▪  Provide BASF up to 100 million gallons of water per day, and treat the effluent pouring into the non-flushing Colleton River at an estimated rate of 2.5 million gallons a day.

In addition, a permit was sought for tankers to bring in 40,000 barrels of oil per day.

BASF said it would not pollute the air or water, and state and local officials said it was so.

But not everyone believed it.

Historian William “Will” Bryan of Georgia State University says the fight that erupted “pitted two of the largest movements in the 20th century against each other: the eradication of poverty and environmentalism.”

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BASF announced on Jan. 14, 1971, that it no longer planned to come to Victoria Bluff. A week later, it said it would build near an existing plant in Geismar, La., in an area now dubbed “Cancer Alley.”

It would have changed everything for Beaufort County. Why didn’t it happen?

GRASSROOTS GROUNDSWELL

Grace Doughtie recalls being heckled as she led a march through Beaufort opposing the BASF plant. Young people carried signs saying “BASF — Bad Air Sick Fish!”

“We did manage to get a lot of our friends involved, but really it was people of all ages and races and leanings who came together to try to protect what we loved about the Lowcountry,” Doughtie said recently. “We did our research, too. We uncovered numerous stories of BASF’s dismal record in Germany and Belgium, where the company was known to be a large polluter.”

But the grassroots opposition ran much deeper.

The Hilton Head Island Community Association, the only semblance of an island government in those days, met within days of the announcement. It demanded that BASF go away because it was incompatible with the new tourism-real estate-retiree industry, or that BASF sign legally binding covenants prohibiting pollution.

Vocal naturalists Nancy Butler Cathcart and Caroline “Beany” Newhall were appointed to a watchdog group. But so was William “Bill” Kenney, a retired Shell Oil vice president and general counsel.

Another opposition group called the Citizens Association of Beaufort County was led by the Vice Admiral Rufus Taylor of St. Helena Island, who had just retired as deputy director of the CIA.

Many other groups, both for and against the plant, bought newspaper ads, circulated petitions and wrote letters to government leaders. Shop owner Nelle Smith recalls a bumper sticker that said, “Over 35,000 Signatures say No to BASF.”

A letter to the editor in The Beaufort Gazette just two editions after the big announcement was an indicator of what was to come.

Capt. George Klecak of Coffin Point on St. Helena chided the blanket statements of environmental protection. He wrote of national concerns about water pollution in studies by the American Chemical Society and the Commission on Marine Science, Engineering and Resources.

“The only conclusion that can be drawn from these reports is that the future of Beaufort County is bleak, indeed,” wrote the avid angler and fishing-lure inventor. “We can look forward to the fate of such cities as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and, nearer home, Charleston and Savannah.”

ISLAND ALLIES

A month after the initial announcement, Arnold Palmer set Hilton Head’s world on fire by winning the first Heritage golf tournament at Sea Pines.

It was a splashy symbol that the millions of highly leveraged dollars developers had sunk into the sand and marsh of Hilton Head was going to pay off.

The leading developers, Charles Fraser of Sea Pines and Fred Hack of the Hilton Head Co., put aside their differences to unite against BASF.

The late William Marscher, then a new Sea Pines vice president, was assigned to it full-time. He wrote later that the entire opposition effort cost more than $750,000, with 90 percent paid by developers and 10 percent by public donations.

They paid for land-use studies and, in a more tongue-in-cheek move, proposed an amusement park for Victoria Bluff to be called “Seven Flags Over Port Royal.” It was to illustrate that recreation could produce jobs.

The Hilton Head Chamber of Commerce opposed BASF. Beaufort County Council retaliated by refusing its usual $7,500 annual allocation to the chamber. Later, a reduced amount was offered, provided the chamber promise not to oppose county policy. The chamber declined.

BASF also got corporate pushback from the commercial seafood industry, including the Blue Channel Corp. in Port Royal.

And the project’s corporate opponents had an ally in Hack’s brother and company officer, Orion Hack. He was a naturalist who wanted to photograph every type of plant on Hilton Head before they disappeared. He was called the heart and soul of the BASF opposition.

His widow, Alicia Hack, says today that long-time friendships were fractured, and the expense darn near pulled the cash-strapped Hilton Head Co. under.

THE SYMPOSIUM

Orion Hack organized a “Conservation Symposium: South Carolina in Crisis” for Jan. 5-7, 1970.

More than 50 scientists, journalists and environmentalists came to the event at the Port Royal Inn, all expenses paid.

They called for a one-year moratorium on BASF construction while pollution studies could be done. They called for stronger pollution control laws and greater funding for the South Carolina Pollution Control Authority.

More importantly, the conference attracted national attention, with articles flowing from The New York Times, Life, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, Golf Digest and Natural History magazines.

And 5,000 summaries of the conference were distributed nationally.

LEGAL MANEUVERING

After several months of fighting within the system, opponents changed tactics.

Kenney, the retired Shell Oil counsel, recommended a policy of “harassment and delay.”

They would seek injunctions in court.

This turned into a gold mine of sworn testimony by all the players, including the BASF leadership.

Opponents said it showed BASF could not prove what it would pump into the Colleton River, and no one could prove it wouldn’t harm the environment.

One legal challenge came after Herbert Windom, chief of the physical science division of the University of Georgia’s Skidaway Institute of Oceanography near Savannah, documented pollution near a new Tenneco dye plant on the marshes of northern Beaufort County. The state gave it a clean bill of health. BASF opponents said it showed state pollution promises were empty.

Another challenge came from the Hilton Head Fishing Cooperative — a small group of black shrimpers — and two large commercial seafood processors in the county. It used the National Environmental Policy Act that went into effect Jan. 1, 1970, to insist that dredging and other plans for the BASF plants could not take place without an environmental impact statement.

Amid the challenges, the state announced it would delay permits for BASF.

PUBLIC RELATION WARS

Both sides seized a storyline of convenience.

Opponents hired the Bradley, Graham and Hamby firm, headed by two women in Columbia, to coordinate publicity. They had run many political campaigns, including former S.C. Gov. Strom Thurmond’s successful write-in campaign for the U.S. Senate. Partner Lottie “Dolly” Hamby immediately said the fight could not be won at the state level.

They framed the issue as a pioneering effort for all of America — snuffing out pollution before it happened. Pictures in advertising contrasted industrial ruin with the county’s beautiful scenery.

Proponents of the plant made it about eradication of poverty, stressing economic impact, jobs and the answer to poverty that had recently made national news with the “Hunger Tours” by then-U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., and the outcry of a local doctor, Donald Gatch.

The state Development Board came out with an audio-visual program it called “Rich Man, Poor Man” that called the local opposition “South Carolina’s shame.” It attacked Hilton Head as “the very few who would keep South Carolina poor.”

Marscher, the then-Sea Pines executive who grew up in Beaufort, said accusations of motives in the BASF fight set off “North of the Broad vs. South of the Broad” hard feelings that linger today.

Locally, it got personal with county leaders calling Hilton Head Islanders “selfish fat cats.” On the other hand, news outlets reported that local elected leaders pushing for the plant had options to buy land near the industrial site and exercised some when it seemed like a sure thing.

Plant opponents also argued that the economic statistics were distorted, that few jobs would go to the unskilled and poverty-stricken. And they said the recreation industry that could be hurt by pollution was also producing jobs and economic growth.

Bryan, the Georgia State University historian, concluded that the anti-pollution message got more traction than the anti-poverty storyline.

GULLAH SHRIMPERS UNITED

Hilton Head Island’s Gullah community knew all about shrimping. But not until 1969 did the black fishermen own a piece of the pie.

The Hilton Head Fishing Cooperative gave about 15 shrimpers what Ebony magazine called “a new era of honest-to-goodness black capitalism.” They owned their own boats, controlled their own destiny — and didn’t want to see it fail because of water pollution.

Thus the oddest of bedfellows — the Gullah and the newcomers — united to fight the BASF plant. It put a different face on the viewpoint that only retired millionaires from elsewhere opposed BASF.

Plant opponents took Gullah fishermen to Texas to see water pollution around petrochemical plants.

“The BASF plant would have destroyed our community and our community’s way of life,” co-op officer Thomas Barnwell Jr. says today. “We learned what can happen to a community. The oyster beds on Daufuskie Island were closed due to pollution that came from the Savannah area. It knocked out all livelihood for the residents of Daufuskie Island. We knew what can happen to a community when a means of livelihood is destroyed.”

It was a hard stand to take. Other black leaders wanted the better-paying, year-round jobs offered by BASF and its spinoffs.

More than once, scores of black supporters of BASF, including the statewide NAACP leadership, picketed on Hilton Head.

And the Bluffton Progressive Club, made up of about 50 black members, lobbied for the plant.

Today, the co-op is gone, as is much of the shrimping industry. But Barnwell still stands behind their decision to oppose the plant.

“I think all those people in all the gated communities all over Bluffton and Hilton Head, and all those hotel and motel owners and business leaders who have made so much money on the tourism and real estate values that are here today because of our fight should pay it forward and give recognition where it is due,” he said. “They should give money to the Mitchelville Preservation Project so we can tell the true, complete history of our county.”

THE CAPTAIN DAVE

The Capt. Dave shrimp trawler remains the lasting image of the fight.

She chugged into Beaufort County history with a 777-mile, week-long trip from Hilton Head to Washington, D.C., in April 1970.

It was a symbolic trip, with John Gettys Smith, a Sea Pines marketing guru and vice president of community development, aboard a vessel owned by David Jones “No. 1,” a Hilton Head mechanic, Beaufort County Council member and Hilton Head Fishing Cooperative president.

The 43-foot boat was a symbol of a small band taking on an opponent the size of an aircraft carrier. It was a symbol of Lowcountry life and clean water. Its mission was to deliver petitions against the plant to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Walter J. “Wally” Hickel.

The Capt. Dave eased out of Hilton Head on Sunday, April 19, 1970, under the steady hand of Capt. Joseph Simmons. Other Gullah watermen aboard were Jacob Driessen and another David Jones — a fishing captain known as David Jones “the Second.” Along with Smith were a couple of other Sea Pines employees.

The boat was decked out with red and yellow pennants. It was laden with signs: “Cruise to Washington for Conservation,” “Save the Unspoiled Waters of Port Royal Sound,” “We Want More Industry but Clean Industry” and “No Dead Fish.”

The trip was timed with America’s first Earth Day. Stops in Charleston and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, Morehead City and Bellhaven in North Carolina, and Norfolk and Mount Vernon in Virginia produced media coverage and 10,000 additional signatures on petitions.

News outlets flocked to a dock on the Potomac River as the Capt. Dave and Hickel’s shiny black limousine arrived at the same time.

“You’re to be congratulated,” Hickel told Smith.

Then David Jones “No. 1,” who did not make the trip up the coast aboard his trawler, read a prepared statement after Hickel was presented petitions with an estimated 45,000 signers — and some shrimp.

“Secretary Hickel, I wish to present to you, from the depth of the cool, clean Atlantic Ocean, food for the body, as well as the brain. We are depending on you to see that the waters remain as they are, so that we can continue to enjoy the natural resources of nature.”

HICKEL’S LEGACY

When Hickel, then Alaska’s governor, was nominated by President Richard Nixon to be secretary of the interior, environmentalists were aghast.

He was a builder, a developer, an oil man and pipeline enthusiast who once said, “You can’t just let nature run wild.”

But the minute he walked in the door in January 1969, he showed a bent for environmental protection.

Josef Holbert, who was Hickel’s press secretary at the time, said Orion Hack got his attention on Beaufort County.

“BASF had a lot of political juice and taking it on seemed to be naive, at best,” Holbert said recently. “But Secretary Hickel was very, very interested in the environment and the salt marsh and the marine environment in coastal areas.”

Hickel was not in the permitting business, but he used his position as a bully pulpit.

On March 24, 1970, he wrote a letter to Hans Lautenschlager, BASF Corp. president, warning that “this department would strenuously oppose any action which would result in degradation” of water quality in the area he called “a splendid estuary, virtually free of pollution.”

He cited federal roles in overseeing both water quality and channel dredging.

On April 8, 1970, BASF announced it was suspending construction at Victoria Bluff until it could see coordinated federal and state environmental requirements. That effectively ended the fight, but not the war, which dragged on amid great acrimony until the next January.

ENVIRONMENTAL TIMING

A few years earlier, and the story could have been different.

But the BASF fight came along as America, still digesting Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” was beginning to worry about something called “ecology.”

Disasters were everywhere.

In January 1969, the Los Angeles Times ran this banner headline: “DRIFTING OIL SMEARS BEACHES FOR 12 MILES.” Publicity of the oil-well blowout at Union Oil’s Santa Barbara channel was relentless, demanding the attention of President Nixon, senators and Hickel. Angry picketers greeted the corporate president with signs: “Is This Progress?” “Stop Offshore Drilling,” and “Ban the Blob.”

In June 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire in Cleveland, Ohio. The flames were large enough to engulf a ship.

By January 1970, President Nixon’s State of the Union address stressed quality of life in asking for a battle to save the environment.

In April 1970, coinciding with the first Earth Day, Ralph Nader and “Nader’s Raiders” released a report on air pollution called “Vanishing Air.”

A history of the environmental movement by Jack Doyle at pophistorydig.com says, “In the years following the Santa Barbara oil spill, as the new laws kicked in, an ‘environmental due process’ began to take hold. … Impacts and possible alternatives were being weighed and considered before approvals could be given — with all decisions made after public hearings and comment.”

Georgia State University historian Bryan — who documents the BASF fight in his essay, “Poverty, Industry, and Environmental Quality: Weighing Paths to Economic Development at the Dawn of the Environmental Era” — said, “Ten years earlier, maybe even five years earlier, and that plant would have been built.”

TODAY’S STRUGGLES

After BASF, other attempts to industrialize Victoria Bluff failed amid pitched opposition from the public. Brown & Root, a division of Halliburton, wanted to make offshore oil platforms there. Chicago Bridge & Iron wanted to build 10-story-tall, liquefied natural-gas shipping spheres. Finally, it was to be the site of a boat-building plant.

Today, the Colleton River Plantation on that same land looks the opposite of an industrial city. It is a low-density, high-end housing development with Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus golf courses and other amenities.

The land also is home to the state-owned Waddell Mariculture Research and Development Center, and the 1,111-acre Victoria Bluff Heritage Preserve offering nature trails, wildlife observation and bird-watching.

Bryan said the struggle did not silence the questions on either side, and “promises of improving the lot of the region’s poor through tourism proved hollow.”

Today, the working poor struggle to find housing near jobs on Hilton Head. Many jobs remain seasonal, with low wages.

All local governments still want to diversify the economy. And current environmental fights often focus on the non-industrial economy, which was called “self-pollution” as far back as 1972.

The BASF battle marked the beginning of the environmental movement in South Carolina, says Alex Sanders, a former state lawmaker who went on to become the chief judge of the S.C. Court of Appeals and president of the College of Charleston.

“There are two lessons to be learned,” Sanders said. “First, the price of success is eternal vigilance. From an environmentalist’s perspective, you either lose or the battle goes on forever.”

“And,” he continued, “unless the environmental issue has vested interests on both sides, it’s not worth pursuing. ... If you only had a bunch of barefoot environmentalists, you’d get nowhere.”

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale

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