‘Cautiously optimistic’: Environmental lawyers weigh in on SCDHEC’s odor order to New Indy

Updated: May. 10, 2021 at 7:40 PM EDT
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YORK COUNTY, S.C. (WBTV) - South Carolina Department of Environmental Control (DHEC) is ordering New Indy Containerboard to stop the stink that has been plaguing residents for months.

The agency continues to say New Indy is the culprit behind that rotten egg smell crossing state lines. In the order, the state also says that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) report concludes its New Indy as well.

Now with this order, New Indy has to come up with plans to fix the problem.

WBTV told you when we first broke the story that the state believed it was a switch from white paper to brown paper causing the smell. The state says it has confirmation and more details.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control says New Indy reported a switch to brown paper or cardboard on February 1.

DHEC says brown paper causes more of the rotten egg odor because of how it is processed.

In the 12 page order, DHEC says it issued the permit update because the increased emissions were supposed to be under the legally allowed limit.

However, the state says New Indy failed to update its odor abatement plan when it made the switch.

That plan is supposed to keep the rotten egg smell down as much as possible. The lack of updates means New Indy could be in violation of its permit, according to DHEC.

“This has kind of become a strain on where we live. We want to go outdoors and enjoy the weather but this is kind of prohibiting that,” said Jill Katsoulis, who lives in Walnut Creek.

Katsoulis enjoyed a walk in Walnut Creek on Monday as many the many people who were able to enjoy the great outdoors in the area. She says she has not been able to walk because of the rotten egg smell.

”You wake up in the morning it’s there,” said Katsoulis. “It’s there in the evening. It’s there at night time.”>

She is hoping for more walks in her future with the state now ordering New Indy Containerboard to get rid of the stink.

”I feel happy that something’s being done about it. Because sometimes things just go left unsaid and people just live with it. And we don’t want to live that way,” she says.

In the order, the Department of Health and Environmental Control gives New Indy three strict dates to get the problem corrected.

In just a week, on May 17th, DHEC says New Indy has to have a plan to tell the state and the communities around it if any changes will create more odors. The plant also has to send a testing intent form for the steam strippers that are supposed to help calm the odor.

Three weeks later, on June 1st, the state is requiring New Indy to complete an evaluation into what’s causing the odor and submit a plan to monitor hydrogen sulfide levels. Also on that day, DHEC wants a plan from New Indy to test emissions levels from a white to brown paper switch.

A month from now, on June 15th, DHEC needs a corrective plan for how the company will get rid of the smell and fix any processes causing it. That plan requires specific dates on how New Indy will fix it.

”I would be optimistic but cautiously optimistic,” says Phil Federico.

Environmental lawyers Phil Federico and Chase Brockstedt faced a similar problem in their state of Delaware with emissions and tainted groundwater. The two fought against Mountaire Farms, a poultry company. That company had not only sent a similar bad smell into the air for years but also sent untreated wastewater into the wells of neighbors living nearby.

Federico said companies coming into neighborhoods have to be good neighbors.

He, and Brockstedt, are both concerned what the last four months have done to people’s health in the affected communities.

WBTV asked them about this particular timeline where an order like this is being issued four months after the initial reports.

Both of them agreed timelines in their industry could be all over the place. However, Brockstedt says it could still take months if not years for the odor issue to be resolved completely.

WBTV also asked them about the order. People see this as a big step to a hopeful resolution. The two say they are cautious because the Delaware environmental agency did the same thing.

”The department came in with a plan but that plan was woefully inadequate and its insufficient,” said Brockstedt.

Federico and Brockstedt are not saying DHEC’s plan is not sufficient to possibly get the job done, but instead advices to wait and see if DHEC will hold New Indy to its own set dates. Holding the company’s “feet to the fire” as they put it.

”An order is only as good as its enforceability,” says Federico. “What are they going to do to hold New Indy accountable and that remains to be seen,”

”One of the things that’s key here is to find out what the state is requiring of New Indy and making sure that will solve the problem,” says Brockstedt.

One thing the two both agree on is power in numbers. They liken this to a David and Goliath situation. What they encourage the affected people to do is continue to report and speak out about what is going on. They say there is power in numbers and the best thing to do is stay on top of everything that is happening.

For Katsoulis, the time where there is not odor could not come any faster.

”I want this to end before it gets any further,” she says.

WBTV is asking DHEC how it plans to enforce this order if it comes down to it. As for New Indy, despite calls and emails, there was no response.

It has been four months since South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) got the first few reports of the rotten egg smell in Lancaster and York counties.

WBTV was the first to start investigating this story and since then there have been a lot of new developments. That includes South Carolina’s governor getting involved with the smell.

On Friday, May 7, SCDHEC released a report determining that New Indy is the source of an undesirable level of air contaminants of such quantity, characteristics and duration as to be injurious to human health or welfare or which unreasonably interfere with enjoyment of life or use of property.

The health department is ordering New Indy Containerboard to correct the undesirable smell and for the company to have a corrective plan by June 15.

“This order clearly defines immediate actions that New Indy must take to ensure good air quality for the people who live and work near the facility,” said Dr. Edward Simmer, DHEC director, in a statement released May 7. “As the state’s public health and environmental protection agency, it is our duty to ensure that companies in South Carolina are good stewards of our beautiful state and that our residents have clean, odor-free air to the extent we can control.”

Read the full order below.

“This decisive action is the result of a vigorous, cooperative investigation by DHEC and its partners,” said Gov. Henry McMaster in a statement released May 7. “I’m confident that this order will bring long-term resolution to this matter and ease the concerns of York and Lancaster County residents.”

This story takes you back to where this all started and what we know today.

First, a number. More than 17,000.

It is the number of reports the Department of Health and Environmental Control received from the odor. That is how many times people have reported the rotten egg smell in homes, cars and outside. Four months later, there are still few answers.

The first reports started rolling in January of this year. Those came into DHEC and Senator Michael Johnson, Wes Climer and Mike Fanning.

The agency tracked them in Ballantyne, Lancaster, Marvin and beyond.

Then, on March 10, we broke the story with you all complaining of the smell.

Our story was the first time DHEC came out publicly about this matter. Days later, DHEC put together an official website and odor form for people.

“Sour, pungent, sharp distinct smell,” said one woman who lives in the area.

Then a week later, the Department of Health and Environmental Control held its first press conference announcing an investigation and urging people to help report the smell. It held another one on April 12.

“It is a priority. We’re leaving no stone unturned,” said Myra Reece, the environmental director.

On March 27th, a Facebook group was created. It is dedicated to getting answers for the smell and working together to come up with a solution from officials. The group has 1,500 people in it and counting.

Through the end of February and all of March, a DHEC team visited, tested and investigated several potential culprits including New Indy Containerboard. That is according to the April 9 report the agency released. It was not until that April 9 report that DHEC declared New Indy as the culprit. However, the agency claimed New Indy was a potential culprit at the press conference.

A short week later, New Indy tried to shed the blame releasing its own report saying it shows no wrongdoing.

WBTV has contacted New Indy’s flagship several times with no response from the company. Our reporter, Morgan Newell, was even kicked off of the property after reporting on the story.

”As the testing report indicates, New Indy did not detect those compounds in any meaningful concentration that would equate to intense odors,” said Toby Hobson, Vice President of Manufacturing.

Not even a week went by before the Environmental Protection Agency got involved.

The agency is helping DHEC with another set of testing. It joins the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and Mecklenburg Department of Environmental Quality. In a release sent to WBTV on Wednesday about its efforts:

To assist with informing the multistate team, EPA assembled a technical team with expertise in air, water and waste from across the Agency to analyze modeling data and screen potential sources of sulfur compounds in the area. Data and information gathered, to date, indicate a potential cause of the odor is hydrogen sulfide. On April 24, the multistate team deployed a mobile air monitoring vehicle, called a Geospatial Measurement of Air Pollution (GMAP) mobile laboratory, to Catawba, South Carolina, to assess hydrogen sulfide levels around industrial facilities and the surrounding communities.

WBTV asked the EPA what data the GMPA has gathered so far, but did not get a response.

Just yesterday, Senator Michael Johnson announces he is making moves to stop New Indy from increasing its emissions by almost 50 percent.

”We’re gonna fix this,” said Johnson, at the press conference.

Senator Johnson’s efforts to limit New Indy’s emissions did get adopted by the Senate. Now, it goes to the House where another representative will fight to keep it in the bill.

So, that brings us back to today where many have been smelling this smell for four months. It brings up health concerns as more and more complain of nausea, migraines and breathing problems.

”It’s more like is it OK? Is it going to have any long-term effects?” asked another woman who lives in Indian Land.

WBTV asked the state, but they did not give much more information. DHEC says it is a part of the investigation with the EPA. So, many are still in a waiting pattern hoping from more answers from the DHEC and New Indy.

”It’s an issue that has to be fixed. Four months is long enough,” said a man living in Marvin.

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