DHEC chief says paper mill misled agency in shutting off pollution controls at SC plant

South Carolina’s environmental agency director says a paper mill in York County misled the department when the company shut down a pollution control device that could have limited powerful odors in suburban Charlotte.

Edward Simmer, director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said the New-Indy company assured the agency it would keep pollution in check if it was allowed to stop using the equipment.

But after the equipment, called a steam stripper, was taken offline, strong odors blanketed the Rock Hill-Charlotte area in both Carolinas, causing up to 49,000 complaints about the stench from January 2021 through this summer.

“They assured us the changes they would make would achieve that goal, that they would not violate the regulations, they would not pollute,’’ Simmer said. “Obviously, that did not happen. They did pollute. They did violate the regulations.’’

“So to that extent, yes. They misled us. Do I think that was intentional? I have no way of knowing.’’

The paper mill’s problems have made it important for New-Indy to “clean up its act’’ because many people have been affected, Simmer said.

“They’ve put those people through a lot up there and they’ve got to do better,’’ Simmer said.

Odors tied to New-Indy have been described as resembling rotten eggs, cat urine, feces, skunks, sweet chemicals and menthol, according to complaints from area residents filed with DHEC. People across the area have complained of headaches, nausea, watery eyes, burning lungs and vomiting as a result of exposure to the odors.

Simmer said the odors are both a nuisance and a health concern, noting that coughs and burning eyes may not cause permanent health damage, but that “still has an effect on your health and it’s still a problem.’’

The shutdown of the steam stripper, combined with a breakdown in the plant’s wastewater system, are key reasons for the stench, consultants have reported. Steam strippers take out some of the most foul-smelling waste products at paper mills.

Until Tuesday, DHEC had not directly answered the question of whether the agency believed New-Indy had misled the department. Agency staff have said New-Indy provided information indicating the law would be followed and odors could be controlled, which prompted them to sign off on the removal of the stripper.

Simmer said the department is now asking New-Indy to install a second steam stripper. The second stripper would handle waste that the existing stripper can’t process. A consultant for residents suing New-Indy had recommended a second stripper.

New-Indy has conceded problems, but says it is working to correct them, and has made substantial progress in reducing odors.

The company had not responded to Simmer’s comments by Tuesday afternoon. But New-Indy and DHEC said recently that hydrogen sulfide releases have dropped dramatically in the past year.

“We monitor (hydrogen sulfide) concentrations at our fence line,’’ the company said in a Sept. 20 statement. “Those monitors have indicated for at least the last 12 months that there are negligible levels .... at the property boundary.’’

Neighbors, however, say they are continuing to notice unusually strong smells they believe are coming from New-Indy, The State reported Sunday. Some critics say the company doesn’t have enough monitors or monitors in the right places. The Catawba Indian nation also has voiced concerns about New-Indy.

S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control chief Edward Simmer
S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control chief Edward Simmer

Betty Rankin, one of the leading critics of New-Indy, said DHEC staff members had been helpful, but state leaders have not done enough to push changes at New-Indy. She wants the plant shut down until the odor problem is resolved.

Area residents have suffered because of “New-Indy’s conduct and the fact that the DHEC leadership and the governor did not take the steps to protect us; they did not shut them down,’’ Rankin said. “I bet New-Indy would get things fixed in a hurry if they shut them down.’’

McMaster touted New-Indy when the company took over the Bowater plant, but has said more recently the company needs to straighten out its problems.

Simmer said the department still is looking into New-Indy’s actions and is awaiting potentially more enforcement action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A federal court also has not finalized a more than $1 million federal fine against New Indy, issued late last year.

Simmer said the EPA was focused on air pollution issues, while DHEC was looking at the wastewater treatment system, which contributed to odors.

Sludge in waste lagoons has built up, and has been called a problem that needs correcting. The sludge also contains a number of nasty pollutants, including dioxin, a cancer causing material.

The waste ponds are near the Catawba River, although DHEC says it has no evidence the dioxin has reached the river, a drinking water source that flows between Charlotte and Columbia.

“New-Indy .... still has got some issues with that wastewater system,’’ Simmer said.

New-Indy ran into troubles after acquiring the old Bowater paper mill in 2018. The company then switched from making paper to making unbleached containerboard. The company, a privately held business with plants across the country, is partially owned by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

The plant is located near the York-Lancaster county line in South Carolina, not far from the Catawba River and The Catawba Nation’s reservation. The plant was established in 1959 and employs more than 400 people, making it one of the area’s major employers.

York County, SC resident Betty Rankin says she sometimes wears a gas mask to protect herself from fumes released by a paper mill nearby. (Sept. 14, 2022)
York County, SC resident Betty Rankin says she sometimes wears a gas mask to protect herself from fumes released by a paper mill nearby. (Sept. 14, 2022)