A former chemical manufacturing facility in Lebeco — called the Lobeco Products site — is well-known for its past pollution problems, but its future could be a commerce park if Beaufort County proceeds with a plan to buy and redevelop the property.
Residents of the area and the Coastal Conservation League are asking questions about the ambitious proposal, which still is in the talking and planning stages and hasn’t been formerly introduced to the County Council.
But County Administrator Eric Greenway says the location would be attractive to businesses because it is between Charleston and Savannah and the proximity to U.S. Highway 95. The county would market the park to “clean and high-tech” companies, he said, which would bring jobs to northern Beaufort County. The site, he added, could become a showpiece in South Carolina for successfully transforming property with a history of pollution into economic benefit.
If the county controls the land, Greenway told the Beaufort Gazette and Island Packet, it would move to downsize the zoning to less-intense uses.
“It would protect the community from incompatible industry,” Greenway said, “and allow economic development on 240 acres.”
Some environmental cleanup has been completed at the property over the years, but additional work is needed. The county would not close on a purchase without conducting an environmental study, Greenway said.
The county is eyeing 242 acres to purchase but only an estimated 110 acres is available for building because of the rest is in wetlands. The former manufacturing plant is part of the area that would be developed.
For more than 40 years, until 2009, product lines at the former chemical manufacturing site included dyes, farm chemicals, drilling fluid chemicals, herbicides, pesticides, and general specialty chemicals.
Soil and groundwater pollution, mainly polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), were left behind on a portion of the larger property after former owners/operators and responsible parties Tenneco Resins, Inc., American Color and Chemical Corporation and LPI, left town.
Over 10 months in 1990, 29,000 tons of PCB-contaminated soil was removed in a cleanup ordered by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. Additionally, some 500,000 gallons of contaminated groundwater was extracted, treated, and discharged to the plant’s wastewater treatment system, according to DHEC.
Jellyfish proposal raised again
As it stands now, with the current ownership and zoning, nothing would prevent a company from buying the land and making products with the potential to cause additional harm to the landscape — for example, a jellyfish processing facility, Greenway said.
In 2014, a company doing business under the names Millenarian Trading Co. and Carolina Jelly Balls wanted to catch cannonball jellyfish, unload them at Golden Dock on St. Helena Island and process them at the former chemical site in Lobeco.
Residents packed public meetings to voice concerns about the effects jellyfish processing might have on local waterways. The project never got off the ground, but its discharge permit is still active, Greenway said.
When he first joined the county, Greenway said, he was concerned about the jelly fish processing proposal resurfacing. “I thought, ‘Holy goodness,’” Greenway recalled. If that proposal comes back, he concluded, nothing could be done to stop it.
The plan will require “buy-in” from residents, Greenway said, before it will be brought to the County Council, which will decide whether to pursue it. The county is now asking residents of the area to fill out a survey about what they think about the county buying the property and uses they favor.
A “for sale” sign stands at a corner of the former chemical manufacturing site at the intersection of Keans Neck and John Meeks roads in the unincorporated community of Lobeco 10 miles north of Beaufort, where residents enjoy a predominantly agricultural landscape. Nautica & Co., Inc., currently owns the former chemical plant property but it has never had any operations there.
John Meeks Road intersects the 242 acres.
The costs calculated
If the county decides to proceed, it would consider issuing bonds to purchase the 240 acres, Greenway said, but grants would be available to develop the infrastructure through the state Department of Commerce.
The county would recoup its costs, Greenway said, through the sale of 15 lots in the commerce park. John O’Toole, executive director of the Beaufort County Economic Development Corp., said the property is a good location for so-called “tier 2” suppliers. Examples are companies that supply the aviation, auto or medical industries.
The total cost of the project, including the land purchase and infrastructure upgrades, would be in the neighborhood of $6.5 million. A 7.5-mile sewer extension to the property from Whale Branch Elementary School, under the Whale Branch River, would be needed.
Greenway, addressing concerns about growth in the rural area, emphasized that the sewer extension would serve only the commerce park, and not additional new construction. To limit the impact of traffic, current access to John Meeks Way from Keans Neck and Morgan roads would be cut off, with a new road being constructed along an old railroad bed with direct access to Highway 21 .
Critics raise questions
On Tuesday, a meeting on the proposal at James J. Davis Early Childhood Family Center drew more than 50 residents who peppered Greenway with questions. Many centered on whether the land was suitable for development and whether residents would benefit from the business park development.
The Coastal Conservation League believes there are still unanswered questions about the county’s plan to purchase the land, clean it up and convert it into a speculative industrial park, said Jessie White, the group’s South Coast office director.
“We don’t believe the true costs and risks of pursuing this plan are understood, nor is it clear that the community at large wants an industrial park at this particular location, especially without knowing what kind of industrial work would take place there,” White said.
The group also has questions about the sewer extension under the Whale Branch River and opening up one of the county’s last remaining rural areas to development pressures.
The proposal has the support of County Council member Dawson Gerald Dawson, who represents Burton, Dale, Lobeco and Sheldon. He told residents at last week’s meeting that he hoped “to get your buy-in so we can move forward.”
The property’s past
The property was used for chemical manufacturing from the 1960s through 2009, with multiple owners over the years.
With the removal of PCBs completed, current cleanup work is focused on addressing reducing the levels of VOC contamination, particularly in a trash burning area where trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent, has been detected in the groundwater, according to DHEC.
Currently, DHEC is working with the potentially responsible parties to finish the cleanup under its Voluntary Cleanup Program, which plans for redevelopment of contaminated property so it can be repurposed. DHEC’s Tim Hornsoky, the project manager, said during a public meeting on the work in 2019 that the responsible parties would bear the cost. To date, contamination on the site has moved off the site but has not contaminated nearby residential wells, DHEC said.
With restrictions in place, DHEC said the property could be used again for commercial or industrial purposes.
If the property is developed, Greenway said, property taxes would increase, which would benefit the local fire department, which in turn could lead to a reduction in insurance rates for residents.
This story was originally published March 12, 2022 4:55 AM.