Old paper mill landfills mostly go unnoticed, un-monitored
More than 200 acres of scattered tracts along the meandering Pigeon River Valley in Haywood County are quiet sentries to the not-so-pretty past of Canton’s century-old paper mill.
Mountains of toxin-laced sludge and coal ash are buried in vast industrial dumps on the outskirts of town, hidden relics of the mill’s long papermaking presence here. The old unlined landfills leapfrog along a 2-mile section of the Pigeon River downstream of the mill.
Above ground, the patchwork of grassy terraces look nothing like landfills. But below ground, massive middens of toxic waste interred in the earth decades ago still lurk.
The old landfills date back to the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, a far laxer regulatory era. They lack modern environmental safeguards to keep contaminants from leaching into surrounding soil or tainting the groundwater.
For the record, there’s no evidence of contamination from the old unlined landfills, built in the days of Champion and International Paper, the mill’s owners at the time.
“We are good stewards of the land in the communities where we have operated, both current and prior,” said Tom Ryan, director of media relations and employee communications for International Paper.
State environmental regulators have classified the old paper mill landfills — three in all — as low-risk, low-priority sites in the statewide inventory of inactive industrial dump sites.
But there’s a catch. The sites aren’t actively monitored for leaching contaminants. The state environmental unit that oversees old industrial dump sites doesn’t require International Paper — the legally responsible entity for the old landfills — to conduct routine testing.
On one hand, the old International Paper landfills have a clean environmental record. But the record itself is limited. Routine groundwater monitoring of sites ceased about 13 years ago. Prior to that, groundwater samples were taken from a series of test wells around the perimeter of the landfills and the results were sent in to state regulators.
But year after year, there was no sign of pollution reaching the groundwater table or migrating through the soil.
And so, around the year 2000, state environmental regulators released International Paper from continued testing. The monitoring wells were filled in with concrete, capped and covered.
Clean on paper
While a clean bill of health exists on paper, in the absence of groundwater monitoring, there’s simply no way to know for sure what’s happening under the ground, according to a review of state records.
Although it’s not required by the state, International Paper could voluntarily choose to conduct testing and share those results with the public, pointed out David Ramey, a hydrogeologist with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources industrial and hazardous waste section.
“The citizens of Haywood County may feel more comfortable if a responsible party came forward and said ‘You know what? Here’s what we are going to do, we are going to install these groundwater monitoring wells,’” Ramey said. “We would probably be more satisfied after that first round of reporting and if they could say ‘Yup, we went out and did it and look at the results. We have a clean bill of health.’”
That indeed would provide a measure of comfort to Marc Pruett, Haywood County’s soil and erosion control officer. Landfills don’t come under Pruett’s purview. But as an environmental officer who spends his days concerned with water quality, he can’t help but wonder about the old, unlined paper mill landfills along the banks of the Pigeon.
Pruett contacted state environmental regulators about one of the landfill sites a couple of months ago, a letter that’s now in the state’s public file.
“I am not sure how these older sites are monitored, but it is likely this one should be on someone’s radar,” Pruett wrote in a letter copied to a handful of staff with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Pruett was specifically referencing the largest of the three old unlined landfills — nearly 90 acres — that’s wrapped on two sides by the river and abuts a designated floodway. Huge earthen dikes run along the base of the landfill, holding back artificial mountains of waste looming above the river.
A stream that once flowed across the site is buried beneath the landfill, encased in a perforated pipe, and eventually exits from a culvert into the river. Rain water seeping through gravel layers of the landfill could eventually join the buried stream on its journey through the pipe and into the river.
Testing of water from the culvert under the landfill is no longer reported to the state. But in the 1990s, traces of dioxin — a byproduct from the papermaking process — were detected in the pipe, according to old environmental reports in state archives.
But environmental inspectors conducting the testing in the 1990s postulated the source of the dioxin may have been from the river itself when it backed up into the culvert during high water periods. The river was once heavily polluted with dioxins discharged upstream from the mill itself, so there’s no way to know if the contaminated residue in the pipe was coming out of the landfill, or backing up into the pipe from the river, according to an old report in the state files.
Still, the underlying hydrology — which includes a shallow groundwater — gives Pruett pause.
“Are there an adequate number of monitoring wells in place to check for groundwater contamination?” Pruett posed. “Is there any air or chemical pollution seeping through the earth cap?”
The answer to both of those questions is a mystery.
International Paper declined to answer substantive questions for this article. Ryan, a spokesperson for International Paper, offered a written statement that simply said all its old landfill sites “meet state standards for closed landfills.”
But that’s not necessarily saying much, given how few state standards these dated, unlined landfills are beholden to.
While not required, International Paper contracts with an environmental consultant to make quarterly checks of the closed landfills, according to Ramey.
Ryan confirmed this, but would not elaborate on the nature of these site checks. They don’t have to be reported to the state, and Ryan would not share them voluntarily.
Sources familiar with the nature of these site checks said they are limited to a visual inspection — basically walking over the site to make sure the dirt covering over the waste or the berm around the base of the landfill isn’t compromised.
It is unclear why the state let International Paper fill in the test wells. One of the landfills was in operation until 1983. The landfill had only been dormant for 17 years when the test wells were capped off.
Then and now
Modern landfill design calls for linings, a giant waterproof mat at the bottom of the pile. The lining stops rain trickling through the landfill from seeping down into the groundwater.
Today’s landfills often require a water-resistant cap over the top as well, to keep the water from soaking into the ground and filtering through the waste in the first place.
“The science of landfill construction has certainly evolved considerably. There is a whole lot of science that goes into it these days, and we can all be thankful for that,” Ramey said.
Newer landfills used by the paper mill are built to these standards, which were put in place in 1997. But the older paper mill landfills dating to the days of Champion and International Paper aren’t lined.
“Should we be concerned that those lesser standards are resulting in some sort of contamination? That is a good question,” Ramey said.
The books haven’t been exactly closed on the old landfills, but nor is the book still open. The old industrial landfills are languishing in a purgatory known as the “inactive hazardous sites program.”
The three former paper mill landfills share the list with several hundred other old, unlined industrial landfills statewide — somewhere between 600 and 700 in all.
At least those are the ones the state knows about. Tracking down old landfills and industrial dump sites isn’t easy. Many aren’t known and never will be, especially those prior to the 1960s.
The state inventory has been a constant work in progress since lawmakers established the “inactive hazardous sites program” in 1987.
The law was a milestone for its time. It created the first inventory of old landfills and created a new branch of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources tasked with assessing their risk of environmental contamination.
Since the program’s inception, more than 2,400 chemical spills or disposal sites and more than 600 unlined industrial dumps or landfills have been catalogued.
“Inactive hazardous sites are not uncommon. There are a few thousand statewide,” Ramey said.
The sheer volume of sites comes with limitations. There aren’t enough state environmental officers to monitor all of them on a regular basis — and arguably many don’t need monitoring.
“All sites aren’t created equal, and in most cases it is a low level of contamination that is responsible for the site being on the list in the first place,” Ramey explained.
Regulators had to come up with a triage system — a way to decide which ones are of the highest risk and warrant monitoring.
“We like to have staff working on and paying attention to the sites we consider higher priority sites,” Ramey said.
The program has led to the cleanup of a few hundred sites statewide where contamination was discovered.
But the vast majority on the list are deemed low priority and, in essence, put out to pasture.
The three old, unlined landfills associated with the Canton paper mill are all deemed low priority.
“We don’t regard these sites as high-priority sites,” Ramey said.
An elusive trigger
The classification of inactive hazardous sites isn’t static. It’s possible for a low-priority site to move up in the ranks and become high priority, triggering heightened oversight and testing, and ultimately cleanup if necessary.
But there’s no clear threshold or mechanism, other than the discretion of regulators in the inactive hazardous site branch.
“It is not black and white,” Ramey said. “The staff is constantly reanalyzing the status of those sites, namely which are high priority that we should have staff members addressing in terms of clean-up, versus which sites are low priority and may be permitted to sit on the inventory.”
Several years ago, something prompted the file to be reopened on one of the three old paper mill landfills in Canton. It isn’t entirely clear why — that institutional knowledge has been lost. But a regulator with the inactive hazardous site section at the time ordered International Paper to test the drinking wells of nearby residents at one of its three old landfills.
Of the three old landfills — known simply as Champion landfill #1, #2, and #3 — landfill #3 is the one that caught the attention of the environmental regulator.
It had always carried a slightly higher risk ranking than the other two. On the list of more than 600 old, unlined industrial landfills statewide, Champion landfill #3 was among the top 100 or so, while the other two clock in midway down the list.
While homes near landfill #1 and #2 are served by city water lines, neighbors around landfill #3 rely on wells for their drinking water — which means any leaching contamination that reaches the groundwater table could have human health implications.
Ramey picked up the torch on the testing initiated by his predecessor when he took over that position two years ago.
He even ordered wells that had been tested once to be retested to clarify the initial results and found little to worry about.
“It appears the neighboring water supplies have seen no impact whatsoever,” Ramey said.
The testing included a full battery of compounds that presumably would be present if landfill contaminants were leaching into the groundwater supply.
“We wanted to use a broad brush and say ‘Do we have any of these contaminants?’” Ramey said.
Although there’s been no official testing of landfills #1 and #2 recently, one landfill neighbor has had his own well tested independently.
Ken Cole and the other neighbors of landfill #2 are served by city water, but Cole has chosen to stay on his own well water. His well is 705 feet deep, and sits just a couple hundred yards from the edge of the old unlined landfill.
He’s never been worried about contamination from the unlined landfill next door. But to be sure, he had his well tested a few years ago.
“They said, ‘your well water is as good as it could possibly be.’ I said, ‘How does it compare to bottled water?’ and they said, ‘I don’t know of any that’s any better,’” Cole recounted.
Cole remembers when the four monitoring wells around the landfill were filled in with concrete back in 2000.
“They said there’s no use to monitor them anymore,” Cole said.
More to the picture
The landfill currently used by the paper mill is a massive site that’s been in use since the mid 1980s. It, too, flanks the Pigeon River and isn’t far from the older landfills.
The newer sections — those built since 1997 when industrial landfill regulations were updated — have liners and meet modern standards. But the older sections within the landfill dating as far back as the early 1980s don’t.
Since it’s an active landfill, it’s still subject to monitoring and reporting. A series of groundwater monitoring wells ring the perimeter of the active landfill and are tested annually for signs of contamination.
So far, testing is clean, despite dozens of acres of unlined cells at the current landfill.
“The concentrations we have been seeing don’t lead us to believe there is any impact from the landfill into the groundwater,” said Ervin Lane, a state hydrogeologist with the solid waste section of DENR. “We don’t see anything that is alarming.”
If the old unlined landfills remain on the public’s radar, then in a sense, the inactive hazardous sites program is working, despite its shortcomings. State law creating the program in 1987 required a list of every site, along with its risk ranking and status, to be published.
While the law stopped short of mandatory monitoring for the sites, and instead leaves it to the discretion of state regulators which ones to flag for heightened vigilance, the very existence of the list is a noble effort.
The hazardous sites section of DENR was recently one of the first within the giant agency to digitize all its records and put them online in a searchable database for the public to view and download.
Every monitoring report, notes from field inspections and every correspondence involving hundreds of sites can be viewed and downloaded for thousands of current and past landfill sites along with chemical dumps and hazard sites statewide.
It’s something Ramey is proud of.
“You and others can learn a good deal about these landfills from these records,” he said.
About 500 sites have come off the list over the years thanks to clean-up efforts. Many were undertaken voluntarily, but some were compelled into cleaning up — namely those with documented evidence of spreading contamination.
Every year, a routine letter is sent to International Paper for each of its three old landfills in Haywood County reminding the corporation of its obligation.
The letter warns International Paper that it is liable for any pollution or contamination that makes it into the groundwater from the landfill.
“Failure of a responsible party to take the initial abatement steps required may result in the assessment of a civil penalty,” the letter reads. “In addition, the branch may seek an injunction compelling compliance ... and a unilateral order may be issued to compel assessment and cleanup.”
At first blush, it sounds ominous. But this same letter with this same language is sent to every inactive hazardous site in the state every year.
The letter is a reminder that the state has the muscle to require testing and compel cleanup if contamination is found. The letter goes on to invite the owner of the site to undergo a voluntary cleanup — which is its real purpose.
“It is an annual letter inviting them to volunteer to clean up their site,” Ramey explained.
A voluntary cleanup has but one perk: getting the site delisted as a hazardous site. Ridding property of the Scarlett Letter that a hazardous site carries can be attractive if the owner wants to sell it or do something with it.
But more often than not, the incentive isn’t enough to get many takers, who see the expense of testing and cleanup as not worth the cost. In the case of the three old International Paper landfills, the state’s annual fishing letter inviting voluntary cleanup in exchange for a clean bill of health at the sites is met with no reply.
“Regrettably, that is the case in the majority of circumstances. In most cases, little or nothing gets done and these sites simply sit in the inventory,” Ramey said.