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Pactiv Evergreen accused of illegally dumping chemicals during shutdown

After 115 years in operation, the paper mill in Canton shut down in June. After 115 years in operation, the paper mill in Canton shut down in June. Max Cooper photo

In a notice of violation  issued Monday, July 10, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has accused Pactiv Evergreen of dumping chemicals directly into its wastewater treatment system rather than disposing of them properly, as required by the company’s permit. 

The July 10 NOV brings Pactiv Evergreen’s total since May 2021 up to 14. Over the past two years, it’s been noticed and occasionally fined for violations ranging from accidental releases  of turpentine and tall oil soap to out-of-compliance levels of E. coli to repeated complaints of gritty white dust  covering cars and decks in Canton.

Thus far, it has paid $41,819 in penalties levied as a result of the violations. This is less than half the average annual wage  of one mill employee at the time of the shutdown. 

According to the NOV, DEQ’s Division of Water Resources received a complaint on Wednesday, June 5 — three days before the mill shut down for good June 8  — accompanied by photos showing a hose connected to a chemical tote that appears to terminate above a floor drain. The chemical tote is labeled “sodium hydroxide solution,” the NOV states, and a second chemical tote bearing a similar label is positioned on top of the tote with the hose connection. This tote has a hose that appears to drain into the top of the lower tote.

The complaint submitted to DWR alleged that the chemicals being disposed of were sodium hydroxide solution and calcium hypochlorite.

On its face, dumping chemicals down the drain might not sound like the worst thing in the world. After all, it all gets cleaned up through the wastewater treatment process before being discharged into the river, right?

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However, a wastewater treatment plant is a complex and delicate operation that relies on specific chemical interactions between different types of wastes to turn the gunk into water that’s clean enough to flow into the Pigeon River. Strong chemicals like sodium hydroxide and calcium hypochlorite could derail that process.

“It completely disrupts any biological processes that are going on,” said Clean Water for North Carolina Executive Director Hope Taylor, who is also trained as a chemist.

Depending how much was dumped, she said, both sodium hydroxide and calcium hypochlorite have the potential to prevent the wastewater treatment system from working correctly and to enter the river, killing fish and other aquatic organisms.

Sodium hydroxide is an “extremely powerful base” that would “turn whatever it comes in contact with extremely alkaline to the extent of burning,” while calcium hypochlorite is a bleaching agent, she said.

“When that water is released from the wastewater system into the river, it still is going to be very alkaline and very oxidizing,” Taylor said. “So depending on the amount that was dumped into the system, it definitely could be lethal to life in the river.”

The wastewater treatment system could likely absorb a small amount of these chemicals without much impact to the treatment process. However, a hose in the reported contents of the photo leads Taylor to believe the dump was of a larger scale.

“That suggests to me that they’re really getting rid of a large quantity,” she said. “Not just a single container that just happened to be left onsite, leftover.”

According to the NOV, when DWR discussed the complaint with facility staff, personnel said their actions did not fall outside of regulations contained in Pactiv Evergreen’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit . Used sodium hydroxide is sometimes diluted before disposal into the wastewater system, they said.

After DWR told staff that direct disposal of raw materials “is not covered under the permit, as it is not a wastewater nor a byproduct of an industrial process,” in a follow-up phone call facility staff argued that virgin chemicals could be disposed of through the wastewater system, that such activities were allowed within the permit and that “this type of process was inherent to shutdown operations.”

The NOV quickly countered that claim.

“In a meeting with facility staff shortly after the shutdown was announced, DWR staff specifically stated that the dumping, disposal or discharge of unused or virgin chemical products or materials into the NPDES permitted wastewater system is prohibited,” the NOV states.

Legal or not, such behavior is unfortunately common among industries as they wrap up operations.

“ Sadly, that’s the kind of thing that businesses that are closing up often do,” she said. 

While the cessation of papermaking is expected to lead to rapid water quality improvements  in the Pigeon River, other, lingering environmental impacts may become apparent  following the closure.

DEQ found Pactiv Evergreen guilty of violating three water quality laws: making outlets into waters of the state without a permit and complying with all conditions set forth in such a permit, duty to minimize or release discharge of potentially harmful materials and duty to comply with permit conditions.

Pactiv Evergreen has 10 calendar days to submit its response to DEQ. In that response, it is required to describe all chemicals released into the wastewater system from the beginning of the transition shutdown permit, together with volumes released. It must provide a narrative explaining its position, stated in a June 9 phone call, that any unused or raw chemical remaining in an opened vessel can be disposed of in the wastewater system, and it must describe “in detail” the activity captured by the photos showing the totes.

“These violations and any future violations are subject to a civil penalty assessment of up to $25,000.00 per day for each violation,” the NOV reads.

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