Stink, Sulfur and Soot: Billionaire Kraft Deals an Air Pollution Crisis to South Carolina

Health + Wellness

In less than a year, a South Carolina paper mill has become one of the dirtiest polluters in the United States.

The plant is spewing high and dangerous amounts of smelly hydrogen sulfide gas and soot into the air above Catawba, South Carolina and nearby counties. While emergency orders have been issued to stop the smell created by the New-Indy Containerboard paper mill, no regulatory actions have been taken to curb their air pollution.

Issues began after an investment group led by Robert Kraft, the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots football team, acquired the mill in 2019 for about $300 million, Reuters reported. It was previously owned and run by Montreal-based Resolute Forest Products Inc.

Towards the end of 2020, the plant shut down to convert to making cardboard instead of bleached paper products. This manufacturing switch also led to a build up of fiber waste in collection bins, which likely elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide output, a New-Indy corrective action plan filed with regulators said, Reuters reported.

“Hydrogen sulfide is a gas formed by decaying organic matter — in this case waste from the paper mill,” WFAE reported. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), absorbing hydrogen sulfide through the skin or inhaling it can cause everything from nausea and headaches to skin and eye irritation to delirium and convulsions.

In February, the New-Indy plant reopened after completing its processing conversion, and complaints began pouring in of a noxious smell, reported WBTV.

“Sour, pungent, sharp distinct smell,” said Bridget Francis, who also lives in the nearby Legacy Park neighborhood, reported WBTV in March. The news agency described the fumes as “a smell so strong it is almost indescribable” and likened it to “rotten eggs, nail polish, sewage and more.”

In March, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) told WBTV that the smell was not toxic and that they thought it could be related to the paper plant switching from white to cardboard processing. New Indy Containerboard paper plant is 25 minutes from the Legacy Park neighborhood.

Nevertheless, DHEC set up a complaints hotline. Since its inception in March, over 30,000 complaints have been filed about the smell, some even from North Carolinians. And, the issue wasn’t just an olfactory nuisance: Some residents reported symptoms of nausea, headaches and burning in their eyes, throats and lungs, WBTV reported. These are the same symptoms that the CDC associates with exposure to hydrogen sulfide.

By April, DHEC discovered that the manufacturing change had indeed created a total reduced sulfide (“TRS”) residual, which does often smell like rotting eggs. An Environmental Affairs Bureau of Air Quality Inspection/Investigation Report found that the New-Indy mill is exceeding its annual capacity for burning fuels by almost double the maximum allowed, WBTV reported.

According to Reuters, an April site visit to the mill by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uncovered hydrogen sulfide levels as high as 15,900 parts per billion. Breathing problems, headaches and nausea can occur from prolonged exposures between 2,000 and 5,000 parts per billion, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration said, Reuters reported. Death can even occur from concentrated exposures, the news report added.

DHEC’s investigation also uncovered issues related to the mill’s handling of wastewater. WFAE reported that the mill began diverting “foul-smelling liquids” into an open-air lagoon instead of to their incinerator and steam stripper — devices used to remove contaminants from industrial waste before they are released — when it began its conversion to cardboard manufacturing in Nov. 2021.

Unfortunately, along with hydrogen sulfide, the mill also releases dangerous levels of soot. The amounts of soot even rival and beat the release levels of the country’s largest oil refineries, Reuters reported. Despite this, no regulatory action has been taken against New-Indy for this air pollution crisis.

Soot is actually small particulate pollution, which is “among the most harmful pollutants,” Reuters noted. In New-Indy’s case, the soot comes from burning wet bark and old tires in power milling operations.

“Made up of particles 50 times smaller than a grain of sand, it can bond with other toxins, infiltrate the bloodstream, and damage the heart, lungs and nervous system,” the news report said.

New-Indy’s most recent stack test, from 2020, revealed small particle pollution that maxed out at nearly 300 pounds an hour, Reuters reported. This is as much as 50 times higher than other large U.S. paper mills, the news report noted after an examination of disclosures with the EPA. For contrast, the news report offered Exxon Mobil Corp’s Baton Rouge oil refinery, which averaged 138 pounds an hour during its latest available stack test. This was already the highest among U.S. refiners, Reuters noted.

Despite this, regulators told Reuters that the mill’s performance was “within federal limits.”

New-Indy’s 2016 stack test, conducted when it was still run by Resolute Forest Products, measured particulate matter production at the same boiler averaging around 100 pounds per hour, or 36% less than the 2020 average rate, the news report added.

Other comparable paper mills can operate with “only 13 pounds per hour of small particle pollution,” Reuters noted.

“I haven’t seen anything like this in 20 years,” Amy Armstrong, executive director of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP), told the news report.

In May, state and federal orders were finally given to New-Indy. The EPA issued an emergency order for the New-Indy plant to reduce hydrogen sulfide emissions and to install air pollution monitors around the plant, Reuters reported. According to The State, DHEC’s order merely asks New-Indy to check its regulations and equipment in order to decrease emissions.

In July, the federal government issued an injunction under the Clean Air Act against New-Indy, WSOC reported. Data from July 9 showed that hydrogen sulfide was still detected in all five neighborhoods where the monitors have been placed, the report noted. The injunction will serve “essentially [as] a follow-up” to make sure the company continues to follow requirements set by the EPA.

Additionally, three federal lawsuits have been filed against the mill owners, alleging that the odor is harming local families, WFAE reported.

Currently, residents are still awaiting a solution to their health and air pollution crisis. As one resident told the EPA, “We are prisoners in our own smelly home.”

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