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Health officials: S.C. paper plant accused of violations, main culprit of more than 5,000 complaints about strong stench plaguing multiple counties

New Indy paper plant
New Indy paper plant(WBTV)
Updated: Apr. 10, 2021 at 4:59 PM EDT
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CATAWBA, S.C. (WBTV) - The stinky situation in South Carolina continues.

South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) provided an update April 9 that named the New Indy Containerboard paper plant a “significant contributor” to the orders plaguing York and Lancaster county residents for months.

According to the agency, more than 5,000 complaints were reported from those in York and Lancaster counties, as well as from some North Carolinians, since March 12.

The issue isn’t just annoying: Some residents have reported to DHEC symptoms of nausea, headaches, and burning in their eyes, throat and lungs.

The agency has been working to trace the source of the smell, which has been described as rotten eggs, nail polish, sewage and more, by conducting research and investigating several facilities across the area.

[‘What’s that smell?’: WBTV finds out what’s stinking up neighborhoods across local three counties, investigation underway]

DHEC created a form for residents to report the smell, time, and location.

They also worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Air Resources Laboratory to track wind speed and direction during these times and working backward, found a significant source of the smell to be the New Indy Plant.

MANUFACTURING CHANGE

Complaints of the smell started to pick up in March, but started coming in around the New Indy mill, located in Catawba, S.C., as early as February. This is the first month the mill had been operational since shutting down in September 2020 to make the change from producing bleached paper to brown paper.

This new process has a total reduced sulfide (“TRS”) residual, often described as smelling like rotten eggs.

After three complaints had been lodged, DHEC launched an Environmental Affairs Bureau of Air Quality Inspection/Investigation Report on Feb. 22, 2021.

The report found the mill was in violation of a permit condition after it was found to exceed the annual capacity for burning fuels.

The mill had burned 11.54% of No. 6 fuel oil and 7.81% of natural gas, exceeding the maximum factor of 10% combined.

Since the switch, issues have been found relating to the mill’s handling of wastewater.

THE WASTEWATER PROCESS

The wastewater treatment process is lengthy and is supposed to go through the following steps and locations:

  • Influent bar screen
  • Primary clarifier
  • In-ground sanitary treatment system
  • Equalization basin
  • Aeration basin
  • Sludge dewatering
  • Sludge storage basin
  • Holding basin
  • Post-aeration basin

Multiple unapproved modifications were made to a 2017 construction permit regarding how the mill handles wastewater treatment, according to a DHEC report.

A letter from DHEC to Dan Mallett of New-Indy dating April 9 claims when the agency requested sludge management information from the mill, they were given materials from 2014 and 2017.

An aeration basin is currently being dredged and the sludge placed in geotubes in a sludge storage basin to be dewatered. The problem is, the report found they aren’t.

The aeration basin also had a “significant blanket of foam” with some areas appearing to be several feet deep, according to the report.

The foam could be seen flaking into the wind. Other investigations found the foam had been seen on Highway 5, crossing the Catawba River.

Area residents first complained about the foam in September 2020. Mill staff said it came from an increase in organics from the treatment plant, and that it would dredge the basin and install sprinklers and add a “defoamer.”

Another issue that was found lies with an equalization basin.

According to the report, the equalization basin is scheduled to also be dredged within the next three months. The sludge in this basin comes from some modifications that were approved in 2017 but not fully put into place. In this case, a pipe was put in for the sludge to go into the equalization basin, but it isn’t being processed beyond that.

Inspectors found that the equalization basin was “nearly full” with sludge and had “significant vegetative growth.”

The report noted there are no approved modifications submitted by the time the permit expired April 25, 2020.

The mill will be required to have a new construction permit approved before the new dredging and dewatering.

GOING FORWARD

The letter sent from DHEC states the facility must update and submit manuals and plans reflecting its current operations, including the odor abatement plan, by April 20.

They also have advised the mill create a citizen advisory board, and to develop a portal citizens can use to submit odor concerns.

Copies of the letter sent and reports are available online here.

WBTV requested a statement from New Indy Containerboard but has yet to hear back.

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