Stinking SC paper mill found over pollution near Charlotte

New Indy paper plant.  South Carolina.

New Indy paper plant. South Carolina.

Photo courtesy WFAE radio/Google Maps

After months of investigation, South Carolina regulators fined a stench-prone paper mill nearly $130,000 over pollution that led to thousands of odor complaints in communities in both Carolinas near Charlotte.

The New-Indy paper company, located in York County, must beef up pollution control equipment to prevent more problems, according to the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control.

New-Indy needs to make improvements to its wastewater treatment system near the Catawba River and conduct more monitoring, among other things, DHEC said in a June 29 letter to the Catawba-area paper mill.

DHEC, which had said it would take enforcement action against New-Indy, issued the order Wednesday and released it publicly Thursday afternoon.

DHEC said New-Indy is working to resolve problems, but more needs to be done.

“While considerable progress has been made to reduce and minimize the potential for emissions, additional actions ….. must be taken promptly,” the agency said in the June 29 letter to the company’s attorney.

Since New-Indy acquired the more than 60-year-old paper mill in 2019, DHEC has been deluged with complaints about powerful odors that many say are worse than any ever produced by the facility.

The issue is one of the top environmental stories unfolding in South Carolina because so many people have complained. The former Bowater paper mill, a major employer in York County, is partially owned by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

All told, DHEC received more than 47,000 odor complaints from January 2021, when people first began noticing the powerful smell, through May 15 of this year. An array of people complained of nausea, headaches and other ailments, and said living near the plant made it difficult for them to spend time in their backyards.

Some families moved out of neighborhoods, fearing the continued exposure to their children, said Kerri Bishop, one of the leading critics of New-Indy in the Rock Hill area. Bishop said she’s not satisfied that DHEC’s enforcement action was tough enough but hopes it will do some good.

She said odors from the plant still are noticeable, some 18 months after they first became a problem.

“It’s bad,” Bishop said. “We’ve had families split up for a whole year because the wife doesn’t want the kids around it, and the husband can’t leave because he’s the sole provider and his job is here. So the family is not together. The kids and family issues is what gets me the most.”

David Hoyle, attorney representing area residents who have sued New-Indy because of the odors, called the order “limited in scope” but a step in the right direction. DHEC launched an investigation last year.

“More needs to be done,” he said.

But New-Indy said it was “pleased to have reached an agreement” with DHEC to resolve concerns and it is working to do better. The fine was mutually agreed to by DHEC and New-Indy.

“New-Indy Catawba personnel have worked diligently with state regulators over the past year to develop a plan that will both benefit and protect the community surrounding the facility,” the company’s statement said. “The mill’s ongoing investment in cutting edge technologies has successfully kept hydrogen sulfide emissions negligible or zero for many months. This agreement will help ensure that future emissions continue to follow this trend.”

DHEC’s action this week consists of both a formal enforcement order focusing on wastewater treatment violations, which resulted in the fine, and the June 29 letter that includes a request to improve a key piece of equipment called a “stripper.”

That equipment is not only inadequate to handle capacity at New-Indy, but it was not used at one point after the company acquired the plant in 2019, records show. The stripper is one of the most vital parts of a wastewater treatment system in controlling odors.

DHEC’s letter from agency counsel Sara Martinez to New-Indy attorney Randy Lowell says New-Indy must install a new stripper that is big enough to treat the paper mill’s waste streams. The company also must maintain the existing stripper for use as a backup, if needed, the letter said.

Martinez said the company must meet with DHEC staff before July 29, after which a consent order will be drafted to make sure improvements are made at the plant.

“Should you fail to enter in to this consent order, the department intends to pursue its remedies against New-Indy,” which could include “other legal proceedings,” the letter said.

The $129,360 fine and order for wastewater treatment violations says New-Indy allowed waste basins to fill with sludge, while piping noxious-smelling material directly to one basin. In neither case was that supposed to happen.

Several plans on how to operate the system and to control odors were outdated, in some cases by more than a decade, the order said.

In essence, the order said New-Indy violated the state Pollution Control Act and water pollution control permits by failing to operate its wastewater treatment plant as required. The order said the company failed to keep the treatment plant in good condition.

As a result of DHEC’s enforcement action, New-Indy must determine how much sludge had built up in part of the treatment system, then remove the sludge that had clogged things up. Part of that effort includes removal of “vegetative islands” that had formed in the wastewater treatment system.

New-Indy also must update an outdated odor abatement plan, the order said.

New-Indy acquired the aging paper mill about three years ago and launched plans to make container board instead of bleached paper, which had been made at the plant for decades under different owners.

Late last year, the US Environmental Protection Agency fined the company more than $1 million and told New-Indy to clean up its act. The EPA’s enforcement action has been criticized as too weak and has not yet been made final.

DHEC had been waiting on the federal government to finalize the EPA enforcement action — which could mean the fine is increased. Goal Sen. Michael Johnson, R-York, said he believes the state agency became frustrated with waiting and decided to act.

“The EPA’s inability to finalize an (enforcement) order kind of forced DHEC’s hand to move a little faster,” Johnson said. “Everytime, I had talked to any DHEC officials they had consistently said they wanted the EPA to issue an order, so they could fill in all the blanks.”

This story has been updated.

This story was originally published June 30, 2022 1:40 PM.

Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment beat for The State since 1995. He writes about an array of issues, including wildlife, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. He has won numerous awards, including Journalist of the Year by the SC Press Association in 2017. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.
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