They’re Called Containerboard Plants & They Stink
Meet The South Carolinians Fighting The Foul Odor In Their Town
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“It was so strong,” says Courtney Beltz of Rock Hill, South Carolina, talking about when the stench first hit her town earlier this year. “The smell would wake us up in the middle of the night, even with the windows and doors closed. The smell of rotten eggs would permeate our home. Some people thought they had a gas leak. I first thought, ‘Did my cat have an accident? Did someone not flush a toilet?’”
For weeks, she and many other locals tried to figure out the cause of the mysterious stench.
The source turned out to be the paper mill. The New-Indy Containerboard paper mill in Catawba, South Carolina, to be exact. The company is owned by The Kraft Group and Schwartz Partners.
The hydrogen sulfate (H2S) emissions from the plant spread a foul odor into several counties at the border of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Catawba Indian Nation, causing physical harm to residents who have reported health issues such as headaches, coughs, burning eyes, and nausea.
“As soon as they started production, the department of health started getting complaints,” Courtney told us.
Meet the new pulp and paper mills. They’re called containerboard plants, and they stink.
Before we get into the details of this town, let’s take a moment to look at containerboard—the material used to manufacture corrugated boxes, aka cardboard. It’s everywhere. It’s used for Amazon deliveries and other goods shipped direct to your home. It transports produce and packaged foods to grocery stores.
Cardboard is lightweight, strong, and made from recycled materials. These boxes are easy to recycle and remake into new boxes or other post-consumer material.
The containerboard market was valued at more than $167 billion in 2020 and its growing. Estimates expect it to exceed more than $239 billion by 2026.
That means a containerboard plant could be coming to your town soon. I urge you to pay attention to this fight and take notes. We’ve added some links at the bottom of this article of other communities dealing with similar issues.
Back To The Stink
Catawba is no stranger to paper mills. Bowater opened the first plant in 1957. And the company merged and changed names a few times until Resolute Forest Products sold the mill to New-Indy in 2018 for $300 million. New operations began at the beginning of 2021.
That’s when the nearby areas started to stink.
Courtney, along with Jean Fritchley of Indian Land, South Carolina, and Jennifer Sabatino of Landcaster, South Carolina, have been working on the H2S odor crisis in their area since February 2021.
They run a Facebook Group called, Carolinians For The Environment (CFORTE) where they share facts and information on the ongoing issue. They also recently joined the New-Indy Community Engagement Group as community members, along with mill staff and technical experts.
I believe their story is helpful for many communities fighting pollution in their town, and it’s largely a success story of how to work together with regulatory agencies, local politicians, and local media to build community engagement and bring attention to the problem.
“Of course, we’re still battling it, we’re not done yet, but in many ways this has been a success story of working with the EPA and the health department,” Courtney said.
Unfortunately, the odor is not gone, but the wheels of change are in motion.
Jennifer was one of the first to start investigating the case. She lives just one mile from the plant and has a medical background as a nurse practitioner. When she contacted the health department, they listened and took down her information. She was not the only one to complain. By March, DHEC opened up a website where they could record complaints.
Jean and her husband are about 15 miles from the plant. She was smelling it too. Her in-laws were neighbors with Jennifer and she could smell it ten times worse when she was visiting their house. She was worried about everyone’s health and started trying to investigate the problem online through social media to find others who were concerned.
Courtney lives about four miles from the plant and smelled it strongly at her house and throughout her neighborhood. She said her neighbors started talking asking, “Do you smell it? Do you smell it? At that point my neighborhood wanted someone to take charge, and they asked me to do it, as I was already very vocal about it.”
Courtney is a stay-at-home mom, and has a connection to environmental work. She was born in Love Canal. Her mother was on part of the fight in Love Canal, one of the worst environmental tragedies in our country’s history, working alongside Lois Gibbs.
“I have a background in the idea that if it smells bad, if it looks bad, something is bad,” she said.
The three women got together through word of mouth and started working to help their community.
“In the beginning, it was a lot of work, constantly calling and writing letters to politicians,” Courtney recalled. “We found one of our senators, Senator Michael Johnson in South Carolina, started talking openly about the issue.”
He was aware of it, he smelled it, and he wanted to help.
“He restored my faith in all politicians,” she said. “There’s hope out there.”
He started working with the women, while at the same time they continued to work with DHEC. The health department was still taking complaints and had received 17,000. (They’ve now received more than 25,000).
The health department launched an investigation at New-Indy and also checked all other facilities in the area to see if anyone else was contributing to the odor. Their investigation found the culprit of the smell was just New-Indy.
“New-Indy was in denial from the very beginning, saying it had nothing to do with it,” Courtney said.
The health department had never dealt with an issue this large before and enlisted help at the federal level from the EPA.
“The EPA saw the number of complaints and decided to get involved,” she said.
Bring In The Big Guns
The EPA did a full investigation of the facility, bringing their geospatial guns with them.
“It looks like a ghostbusters truck,” Courtney described, “and it measures contaminants in the air.”
They were hunting the H2S and found high levels of it in many areas. EPA investigators discovered that the issue was coming from the wastewater treatment part of the facility.
Experts agree that levels of 70 ppb or higher for H2S are evacuation levels, but hydrogen sulfide can be detected by humans at lower levels especially for the elderly and those with asthma. It’s also very flammable at higher levels.
If you are exposed to low levels of H2S, health symptoms can include respiratory symptoms, headaches, and bloody noses, which are the common complaints from residents. At those lower levels, health symptoms will generally subside with little lasting impact, but at its highest levels of exposure, the chemical compound can cause death.
In May, the EPA loaned the health department about 9 community monitors to measure the H2S levels at all hours throughout the community. Each day, DHEC would post the results of the readings and compare them to the complaints they received. Weather and wind patterns played a huge role, so they also began reporting the weather too.
They also did water testing since the plant is right next to the Catawba River. The local riverkeepers went with scientists from DHEC and the final report found no significant impacts to the water quality of the river.
Both DHEC and the EPA have put official orders on the plant to reduce emissions of hydrogen sulfide.
On May 13, issued an emergency order under Section 303 of the Clean Air Act, along with a formal request for the company to perform air monitoring in the communities surrounding the facility.
“That [issuing a 303] is something the EPA has done maybe twice in the last 30 years,” Courtney said. “It’s a huge thing that the EPA was able to do that.”
Despite this huge feat, another battle began brewing. South Carolina has no odor laws on the books.
“When DHEC placed their order, they couldn’t say they [New-Indy] were breaking the law,” Courtney explained. “They gave them an order under the air pollution control act using the quality of life as their reasoning.”
The plant now has to submit an independent evaluation report, an operation corrective plan, and an implementation schedule.
“That’s kind of where we’re at now,” Courtney said. “Now, New-Indy is working toward it.”
Three lawsuits have also been filed against the owners of the plant.
What ‘s Causing The Smell
They have learned that the smell seems to be coming from several sources. The mill has giant lagoons that treat the wastewater from production. They have large aerators that work to get the volatile compounds out of the air. But the community has learned that many of those are not working.
When production began, the company did not properly prepare the lagoons. Large bunches of sludge and fiber from the wood pulp are clogging the aerators, and the company is working to dig them out. They are also adding more chemicals to treat the bacteria in the lagoons to help reduce the smell.
“We will continue to cooperate with local, state, and federal authorities to address public concerns swiftly,” according to New-Indy in a July 12 statement. “Our organization is committed to the safety of its neighbors, its 420 employees and the hundreds of others in the surrounding area who provide goods and services to the mill.”
The EPA has extended their emergency order on New-Indy. The original emergency was in effect for 60 days, but it will not expire until October 31.
“A lot of people are still smelling the smell and thinking nothing is getting done,” Courtney said. “They are angry, and everyone wants immediate results.”
Courtney says her group continues to talk with DHEC daily and post the most updated information on their Facebook group.
“We want to get the truth out there,” she said. “There’s so much information, but we are trying to get the most factual information out there. We have two agencies working really hard on it; we have politicians staying on top of it. We are moving toward the right direction. Would we like it to move faster? Absolutely! But when you are looking at anything with regulations and the government, it’s never going to be fast.”
This whole story stinks. But it does offer a lesson: If you smell something, say something.
Every town with a contamination issue, whether it’s a water problem or an air issue, has a group of dedicated community members working to fix it. This is one of those stories where speaking up has led to action.
Tell us what you think about this stinky situation. Sound off in the comments below!