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Landfill pond overflow, failed water quality test prompt new violations at Canton mill

The Canton mill works through the night during its last  weeks of papermaking in May 2023. Max Cooper photo The Canton mill works through the night during its last weeks of papermaking in May 2023. Max Cooper photo

While mountain residents were busy preparing for Christmas, the Pactiv Evergreen paper mill in Canton that until May 2023 employed more than 1,000 of them was racking up a pair of new environmental violations.

These violations are related to toxic wastewater discharge and an overflowing landfill leachate pond.  

Overflowing landfill leachate 

The first violation, issued Dec. 12, followed a release of leachate from the mill’s Landfill No. 6 leachate ponds that was first noticed on the morning of Monday, Dec. 4 — after going on for an unknown amount of time.

“[Pactiv Evergreen employee] Mr. Willis stated that upon arriving to the site [Monday morning], the high-level alarm was activated and that both leachate pumps were in the off position and were not pumping leachate,” reads the violation document, issued by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality Division of Waste Management.

An inspection DWM conducted the next day revealed that the leachate had overflowed the westernmost pond in two areas. One area was about 40 feet wide, and the other about 24 feet wide.

“The ground was saturated in these areas,” the violation document states. “Gray staining/residue was observed on the ground.”

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According to National Weather Service data, nearby Waynesville received 0.84 inches of rain over the weekend before the inactive pumps were discovered Monday morning.

Leachate is the liquid formed when rainwater filters through the waste stored in a landfill. As it flows past buried wastes, it draws out the chemicals and constituents they contain. The resulting liquid is toxic and must be handled carefully.

In its violation notice, the DWM said that Pactiv Evergreen had violated two provisions of the state’s environmental code: one that mandates leachate be contained on site and treated prior to discharge, and another stating that any permitted facility receiving solid waste must comply with the conditions of that permit. These violations could result in an administrative penalty of up to $15,000 per day, and responsible parties could also incur enforcement actions such as penalties, injunction from operating the landfill or “any such further relief as may be necessary to achieve compliance.”

The violation document directed Pactiv Evergreen to contact the division’s hydrogeologist to determine requirements for a soil sampling plan that will assess the impact of the leachate release. The mill must also implement a procedure to inform personnel “in a timely manner” of pump failure or pumps being turned off, and it must operate its leachate collection in accordance with its operations and maintenance manual.

No further records have been filed following the initial violation notice.

Discharge fails toxicity test, again 

The second violation, issued Dec. 22, 2023, is a more familiar story for anybody who has been following the mill’s repeated environmental failures. For the third time in a row, the shuttered paper mill has failed a quarterly test that gauges the toxicity of discharge from its wastewater treatment plant. But because it passed follow-up testing in all three instances, it won’t pay any fines.

“To determine whether they will be issued a civil penalty, DWR staff averages the two follow-up test values,” said Laura Oleniacz, public information officer for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality Division of Water Resources. “Canton Mill failed their quarterly tests in March, June and September, but the averages of follow-up tests met the permit limits, so no civil penalties will be issued.”

The mill’s wastewater discharge permit requires it to perform quarterly testing using the water flea, a tiny aquatic invertebrate, as an indicator of water quality. If the creatures die off or reproduce more slowly in an environment composed of 90% wastewater plant discharge compared to a control group of discharge-free water, the plant fails the test.

The mill has failed each quarterly test since March 2023, with worse results each time. In that first test, water flea survival was impacted at a concentration of less than 45%, well below the 90% requirement, with water fleas in the 45% concentration averaging 22.2 young compared to an average of 30.9 young in the control group. In the June test, the average plummeted to 8.8 young at a 45% concentration.

In the September test, the one that triggered this latest notice of violation, at 45% concentration the water fleas averaged zero young.

Despite this startling result, the mill was able to exceed permit requirements in follow-up tests conducted in October and November, which were required due to the failed test in September. In both tests, reproduction was uninhibited at a 95% effluent concentration and only slightly impacted at 100%.

“When determining if a civil penalty needs to be issued, DWR staff averages the follow-up test chronic values,” Oleniacz explained.

So, despite the trio of failed tests in March, June and September last year, the mill will not pay any fines as a result.

This most recent violation, issued Dec. 22, 2023, brings the mill’s total since May 2021 up to 20. According to The Smoky Mountain News’ review of the extensive regulatory record, Pactiv Evergreen has thus far paid just shy of $51,000 in penalties levied as a result of these violations.

The most recent penalty, issued by the Division of Air Quality Oct. 23, 2023, fined the mill $9,101 for five air quality violations it incurred in a trio of incidents occurring between December 2022 and July 2023. The July incident, previously unreported by SMN, was a semiannual report showing that the mill’s particulate matter emissions monitoring system was nonoperational for too much time during the first half of 2023, which is “indicative of improper operation and maintenance.” A violation was issued in August.

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