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A look inside: New Indy Containerboard works to honor EPA order, address S.C. odor dilemma

A new tour of the plant highlighted steps taken to clean up.
A new tour of the plant highlighted steps taken to clean up.
Published: Jan. 28, 2022 at 6:46 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 29, 2022 at 9:09 AM EST
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CATAWBA, S.C. (WBTV) - After a month of shedding the blame for an odor nuisance in the area and then several more months spent cleaning up the mess, New Indy Containerboard says they are well on their way to honoring the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and EPA’s requests.

“The efforts that we’ve done that New Indy has put in place have exceeded what the EPA expected and what DHEC expected we’ve been quick and rapid to make responses,” said Mill Manager Tony Hobson.

[EPA hears concerns on New Indy’s odor, chemical exposure before deciding plan of action]

For the first time, New Indy allowed WBTV’s cameras on the grounds and inside the facility. The tour was guided by Hobson. During the tour, WBTV was allowed to take video but was not allowed to ask Hobson any questions on camera. The question we did ask, off-camera, were taken down by notes.

Today, WBTV saw a cleaner Aerated Stabilization Basin (ASB) with much less sludge during a new tour. This is comparing to the photos WBTV obtained from lawyers on this case. Hobson says that is because they’ve added three new surface barges and one new subsurface barge since clean-up efforts began. Before, they only had one subsurface barge working on a 63-acre basin.

[New video from New Indy showing more of lagoon, problem areas causing odor]

Those barges, in addition to the excavators inside the Equalization Basin (EQ), are all contracted out by New Indy. That means no one involved in the cleaning process, according to questions WBTV’s South Carolina reporter Morgan Newell asked, are from New Indy at all. Hobson says they use several different methods like getting quotes, comparing companies and finding out the “right fit” to determine who gets the contract.

According to Hobson, there are multiple contracts and sometimes multiple companies that clean the ASB and EQ. Newell asked, ‘is it good to have different companies come in and clean’ to which Hobson responded, ‘we are trying to downsize in some areas, but different companies have different technology and different methods.’ Hobson could not answer a question about how much money they have spent on clean-up efforts or the money spent contracting that out to other people. He did say the clean up efforts were “significantly improved” the hydrogen sulfide emissions causing harm to many communities in the area.

And then there is the steam stripper, which gets methanol and hydrogen sulfide out of the condensate that gets dumped back into the basin. It basically helps reduce the pollutants going back into the area released by paper mills. It is now, apparently, up and running with more improvements on the way. However, Hobson did say they were still trying to improve or possibly change the stripper. He says they are working with DHEC to do this.

“We’re not going to stop where we are. Our goal is to continue to optimize this and continue to prove we can keep it down at a low level,” said Hobson.

After the tour, WBTV and a few others allowed inside were sent to an auditorium to get a 15-minute presentation, also given by Hobson. The presentation was pre-written and talked mostly about the efforts New Indy has put in to make the facility better. WBTV’s Newell submitted six questions for Hobson to answer. The questions surrounded different topics like neighbors’ rejection of the EPA settlement, New Indy addressing neighbors’ concerns they still smell the hazardous odor chemical mix and the company addressing health concerns. Hobson only answered three questions in total, only one being from Newell.

The one question answered was not exactly what Newell asked. Hobson announced he would answer the question ‘what do you say to the community members who say the EPA was not fair and underly-harsh or their criticism of the EPA.’ The question submitted was actually: What are you all’s thought on the EPA’s agreement proposal being highly rejected by the neighbor’s surrounding this area?

The answer Hobson gave to the question he read in the presentation was that people are entitled to their opinions and that open comment is something they are respective to. However, he argued that he saw what the EPA had done and what was told to him. He says the EPA told them make improvements or there would be penalties. However, they did not want those penalties so “we’re gonna make those improvements.”

Hobson also said he saw the consent decree as an “overall positive standpoint” from the EPA. Homeowners “suffering” under the chemical odor mix and attorneys for the class action suits argued the decree was not good enough. It did not require the company to purchase a new steam stripper.

So why did it get at a higher level in the first place? Hobson is pointing the finger at the previous owners.

“We end up discovering some things we didn’t recognize right of the bat. The facility was undermaintained,” Hobson says.

And while Hobson says they are committed to keeping clean for the community, the same community is still feeling the effects of the odor chemical mix. DHEC says since Jan 1, more than 1,600 odor complaints have been submitted. A total of 42,000+ have been submitted since last year. The agency says some of these are duplicates.

[Lawyers get public input at town hall over stench from New Indy Plant in S.C.]

“No, it’s not normal. Not at all. Nobody should have to deal with that,” says Kerri Bishop, one community member leading a fight against New Indy.

“I wear it at the first sign of New Indy. That means if my nostrils start stinging, burning, I reach for the gas mask,” says Betty Rankin, who often sleeps with a gas mask next to her bed to keep health concerns at bay when the chemical odor mix hits her house.

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