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Leading N.C. attorney general candidates speak out on Canton mill issues

Western North Carolina is still reeling from the closure of Pactiv Evergreen’s century-old paper mill in Canton. A Shot Above photo Western North Carolina is still reeling from the closure of Pactiv Evergreen’s century-old paper mill in Canton. A Shot Above photo

Two congressmen, both hoping to become North Carolina’s next attorney general, with be faced with a host of official duties if elected. Paramount among them — at least for many Haywood County residents — is holding Pactiv Evergreen accountable for issues related to the closing of the company’s paper mill in Canton. 

“The job of the attorney general is to have people’s backs when they’re mistreated, especially when they’re mistreated by large corporations,” said Rep. Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg). “I think we’ve got a classic example of that happening right now in Canton.”

On March 6, 2023, Pactiv Evergreen announced it would close its 115-year-old paper mill in Canton. Current Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat running for governor, became involved almost immediately, telling The Smoky Mountain News on March 8, 2023 that his office would do everything it could to ensure that the mill complies with any legal obligations that may arise from the closure.

Stein subsequently visited Canton at least twice, reiterating his commitment to accountability.

But Stein won’t be around past 2024 to finish what he started as attorney general, so local leaders are looking for reassurances that the next attorney general, whoever they may be, will keep pressure on the company to do what’s required.

“I have some differences with the incumbent attorney general [but] perhaps not in this area,” said Rep. Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg). “The attorney general’s job is not a policy job. You have a constitutional obligation to enforce the law faithfully and execute the laws.”

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The biggest legal issue, as far as state taxpayers are concerned, is a Job Maintenance and Capital Development grant passed under the administration of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory  back in 2014. The grant provided $12 million to Pactiv Evergreen over 10 years to convert its coal-fired boilers to natural gas, but the company had to abide by several conditions to remain in compliance.

One of them was that Pactiv had to invest at least $51 million on improvements. An October 2022 report on the grant program says that the $12 million has been  fully disbursed and that the company had actually spent more than $56 million. 

Another condition of the agreement required Pactiv to maintain 800 full-time jobs through Dec. 31, 2024, but Pactiv slashed nearly all of its workforce by June of 2023. Stein and Gov. Roy Cooper almost immediately cried foul, telling Pactiv they wanted the $12 million back.

Without knowing the particulars of the agreement, Bishop said he’d pursue action if warranted.

“So can [the incentives] be clawed back? It depends on the contract that you entered into. But it’s a pretty straightforward legal question, and you ought to vigorously enforce the law,” he said. “There should be no difference between me and the incumbent attorney general in terms of the position that you enforce the law.”

Stein hasn’t yet filed any legal challenges to the JMAC agreement regarding Pactiv’s compliance, but there’s speculation that the $12 million may be being used as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from Pactiv — for control of the 185-acre site, for extending the company’s operation of the wastewater treatment plant that cleans Canton’s sewage or for something else altogether.

Jackson, however, has a different thought on what’s really happening.

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Jeff Jackson.

“What I’ve heard is that Pactiv may be dragging its feet on doing the right thing here, because they’re hoping the next attorney general will go easier on them,” he said. “I think it’s important that they hear from me that I have no intention of doing that. They owe the people of Canton a fair resolution to this, and that should happen now.”

The JMAC agreement may be the biggest Pactiv-related issue for the state, but locally, probably the biggest issue for Canton’s future is what kind of dirty secrets will be found on the mill site itself.

Pactiv’s Canton mill predates the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by more than six decades and the modern N.C. Department of Environmental Quality by more than a century, but over the past three years alone, the company has logged roughly two dozen notices of environmental violations, including as it was being shut down.

“There are serious environmental issues. DEQ believes Pactiv was dumping chemicals improperly in a way that violates their permit,” Jackson said. “I think the secretary [Elizabeth Biser, head of North Carolina’s DEQ] has been there twice in the last few months. Now we’re talking cleanup. That means Pactiv can’t be allowed to just say ‘good luck, we’re gone.’” 

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Dan Bishop. 

Bishop said that if elected, he’d rely on the authority of the attorney general’s office to hold Pactiv accountable when warranted.

“Every lawyer that works for every agency and state government has answers to the attorney general. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality is the agency responsible for any potential environmental contamination at a site, any violation of discharge,” Bishop said. “The attorney general’s office is responsible for the tactics of litigation. Assuming there’s something to be rectified — again, I can’t speak to the specifics of the situation until I would have an occasion to review whatever facts [are] before the DEQ — but I will be actively involved in those decisions and will be vigorous about faithfully executing the laws.”

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