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Dust complaints continue in Canton; Evergreen works to identify source

White dust clings to a windshield in Canton. NCDEQ photo White dust clings to a windshield in Canton. NCDEQ photo

For more than a year, Canton residents have complained about a gritty white dust from the Evergreen Packaging paper mill clinging to their cars and driveways — and they’re still complaining.

Despite receiving an $8,045 penalty and four dust-related notices of violation from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality between October 2021 and October 2022, Evergreen has not yet managed to fix the problem. The DEQ continues to receive dust complaints from town residents, with the most recent report on these complaints filed Dec. 16. A Dec. 20 letter informed Evergreen that any new “fugitive dust” complaints in the next 12 months would trigger additional requirements from the state.

According to Beth Kelly, communications director for Pactiv Evergreen, the mill has fixed the issues at the root of earlier dusting incidents but has yet to identify the cause of more recent emissions.

“Unlike prior lime dust issues where the cause was obvious, recent events are more complex and the cause is less evident, requiring a more detailed investigation,” Kelly said.

Ongoing dust complaints

Investigations into prior dusting complaints indicated that the material was lime dust, or in one instance, limestone dust. Causes were determined for incidents occurring through September 2022, mostly related to issues with the mill’s lime dust collectors. Communications between the mill and DEQ show that supply chain issues sometimes prevented the mill from receiving new filter cartridges as quickly as it was accustomed to or from its preferred vendor. In one instance, the mill replaced all the filter cartridges in the No. 5 lime dust collector with cartridges from a new vendor, which the mill had decided to try on a trial basis. Within days, the cartridges had degraded so badly that they had to be replaced — but not before causing another round of dusting complaints from Canton residents.

However, after the cartridges were replaced Sept. 18, complaints continued to pour in. DEQ records show 38 separate dust complaints since Oct. 7, the three most recent of which occurred on Dec. 1. One of the callers reported dust between 7 and 10:15 a.m., and all three said it fell again at 1 p.m. “Like snow,” one caller said. Another described the grit as “more charcoal looking” than previous deposits.

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The reports followed a series of nine complaints submitted Nov. 23-30 from residences at various locations east of the mill. These reports were likely related to two separate dusting incidents, one Nov. 19-20 and another Nov. 22-23, concluded Brendan Davey, regional supervisor at the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality office in Asheville. The mill was able to offer a theory for the cause of the Nov. 19-20 dusting — hot and cold lime placed on the ground during operational issues with the Nov. 4 lime kiln Nov. 19 — but did not have an explanation for the Nov. 23-30 incident.

“Given the various location of these complaints as well as our test results to date, we cannot confirm the probable cause of the complaints, however we continue to move forward with the plan outlined above with the aim of figuring out a probably (sic) cause,” mill representatives wrote in response to Davey’s questions.

The mill gave an identical answer when asked for the probable cause of the Dec. 1 complaints.

On notice

The DEQ is turning up the pressure for the mill to figure out what’s going on and fix the problem.

For starters, the DEQ is requiring Evergreen to investigate its No. 4 lime kiln scrubber as a potential source of emissions. In a Nov. 17 letter, the agency told Evergreen that because its No. 4 lime kiln scrubber could be at fault in the continued dusting incidents, it had 90 days to perform a compliance stack test to determine whether the scrubber is operating properly. In a Dec. 20 letter, Evergreen told DEQ it intends to perform the test the week of Jan. 16.

Meanwhile, in a separate Dec. 20 letter, Acting Regional Supervisor for the Division of Air Quality Lisa Whitaker told the mill’s general manager John McCarthy that the mill must get its “fugitive dust” issues under control or face additional state requirements. “Fugitive dust emissions” are defined as particulate matter that doesn’t pass through a process stack or vent but is generated on the plant property from loading and unloading, stockpiles, parking lots and roads, among other sources — such as when lime was placed on the ground Nov. 19. The resulting dust found at a business on the Asheville Highway was found to qualify as fugitive dust “caused by the discharge and movement of hot lime from the Nov. 4 kiln for a significant period of time,” Whitaker wrote.

“BRPP (Blue Ridge Paper Plant) is on notice that a second substantiated complaint in a 12-month period will trigger the Fugitive Dust Control Plan requirements of 15A NCAC 2D .0540.,” she wrote.

The state’s administrative code requires fugitive dust control plans to identify the sources of fugitive dust emissions, describe how the dust will be controlled from each identified source, include a schedule to implement the plan, describe how it will be implemented and propose methods to verify compliance.

In a Nov. 7 email, Evergreen’s environmental manager Cintya Bailey told Davey that the mill would employ two different methods of air sampling to capture particulate matter and determine the emission source. This includes deploying deposition plates around the site and two high-volume environmental air samplers in the community, which will collect dust samples for analysis.

“The mill is committed to implementing a full engineering solution and has invested significantly in technology to collect and analyze the dust, and by hiring an expert environmental consultant who is dedicated to identifying the source,” Kelly said.

Neither lime or limestone dust is regulated as a state or federal air pollutant, but suspended particles of any kind are regulated as particulate matter. High levels of particulate matter in the air can cause heart and lung conditions, especially in young children and adults.

The mill’s air monitoring shows that the mill did not exceed the federal standard for ambient particulate matter between Oct. 21, and Nov. 14, a timeframe that included many dusting complaints. The limit is a daily average of 35 micrograms per cubic meter, and the highest recorded in that period was 14.5 micrograms per cubic meter. However, particulate matter testing that consultant TRC Environmental Corporation performed on the No. 4 boiler Oct. 19 delivered two out of three relative response audit runs outside the allowable range.

The mill disagrees with those results.

“After review of the testing results and report, the facility does not believe that TRC’s particulate matter results for the No. 4 Boiler are accurate … The facility had another environmental consultant review TRC’s data to determine any apparent discrepancies and they agreed with our assessment that TRC’s results were questionable,” reads a Dec. 16 letter from Environmental Engineer Matt Upton.

A different company performed a retest on Dec. 2, and those results will be delivered to DEQ within 60 days of the test date, Upton wrote.

The continued dusting issues have caught the attention of at least one law firm. In a community Facebook group, Canton residents discussed a letter many of them had received in the mail from Durham-based Johnson & Groninger PLCC, at the beginning of December. In the advertisement for legal services, the firm wrote it was investigating filing a class action lawsuit against Evergreen related to the dusting issues. Johnson & Groninger did not reply to a request for comment regarding the letter.

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In a photo taken Feb. 1, 2022, black liquor deposits sit in the Pigeon River. AECOM photo

Black liquor seep investigation continues

Dust is not the only environmental woe facing Evergreen. In addition to the four NOVs it’s received for dust-related issues, it’s logged six more since May 2021 stemming from four additional incidents. These include the release of 20 gallons wastewater containing turpentine, a tall oil soap leak that killed at least 25 fish, a black liquor seep into the Pigeon River and violating the daily maximum limit for fecal coliform discharge. The mill paid $30,548 in fines related to the fish kill.

Investigation into the black liquor seep, found Jan. 28 last year, is still ongoing — though Kelly said the seep is no longer visible in the Pigeon River. Black liquor is a by-product of digesting wood fibers to produce pulp, with the reignited seep identified last January first detected in 1994, when Champion International Corporation owned the mill. While in years past some black liquor was released during mill operations and made its way into the groundwater, today the material is captured, recycled and burned to generate energy for papermaking, Kelly said.

More than 200 acres of scattered tracts along the Pigeon River contain unlined landfills from mill operations in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. While the landfills have a clean environmental record, the record itself is limited. These sites aren’t actively monitored for leaching contaminants.

Division of Water Quality spokesperson Anna Gurney said that sampling will be conducted at the seep site this month, to include surface water, seep, sediment and groundwater from two monitoring wells. Toxicity testing will be performed on the surface water samples, and results are expected in early spring. Additional water sampling focusing on groundwater beneath the mill will occur later, conducted by environmental consultant Arcadis.

“Once all the lab results from both sampling events are complete, IP (International Paper), PactivEvergreen and Arcadis will use that data in their efforts address the groundwater contamination beneath the Canton Paper Mill,” Gurney said.

Town pre-treatment and fecal coliform

The mill’s most recent notice of violation, dated Dec. 1, stems from water monitoring conducted in the Pigeon River April 5 that showed levels of fecal coliform — a group of bacteria that includes disease-causing species such as E. coli — 50% over the limit. The DEQ levied penalties totaling $637.32 as a result. In response to a question about the penalty, Kelly referred The Smoky Mountain News to the Town of Canton, which relies on the mill to treat its sewer waste.

The agreement by which the mill treats town sewer waste stems back to the 1960s, said Town Manager Nick Scheuer, with the town required to pre-treat municipal discharge before sending it over to the mill’s treatment facility. Before 2005, the town performed this pre-treatment in a large contact chamber on mill property, but after the 2004 flood Evergreen asked that the chamber be removed so that it could install a flood wall. Afterward, the town increased the amount of chlorine gas used to treat its discharge and did so successfully “for many years,” Scheuer said.

However, around 2017, former mill manager Wally McDonald asked the town to transition to sodium hypochlorite due to the safety risks of storing and managing chlorine gas. As the town began using this new method and saw its flow volume increase, fecal coliform violations revealed a need for additional measures to adequately pre-treat the discharge. In a Dec. 16 letter, McCarthy and Tracy Willis, who is over the wastewater treatment plant, said that in August 2022, Canton discovered that a “large leg” of the sewer system was not being disinfected prior to entering the mill’s treatment system.

The town expects to start constructing needed infrastructure improvements this month.

“We believe that providing increased contact time and metered dosage for pre-treatment of discharge, coupled with major repairs to any sewer/stormwater intrusions, we can provide Evergreen with consistent flows that will allow them to avoid any future compliance issues,” Scheuer said. “The Town of Canton is appreciative of the working relationship we have with the mill and will do everything in our power to ensure that this continues.”

The mill, which has operated in Canton since 1908, employs 1,140 people between the facilities in Canton and Waynesville.

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