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High bacterial concentrations prompt two new violations for Canton mill

High bacterial concentrations prompt two new violations for Canton mill File photo

A pair of new environmental violations issued this month brings the total for Canton’s shuttered paper mill up to seven since it closed last June and 22 since May 2021 — an average of 1.3 violations every two months. 

The most recent violations, issued Feb. 2 and Feb. 6, followed fecal coliform concentrations in discharge from the mill’s wastewater treatment plant that came in 50% over the state limit on Oct. 4, Oct. 10 and Nov. 2, 2023.   

Fecal coliform is a group of bacteria that includes disease-causing species such as E.coli. While most coliform bacteria do not cause disease, some strains of E.coli cause serious illness. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, swimming, diving or wading in water contaminated with fecal bacteria can result in diarrhea, vomiting, respiratory illness and other health problems. Skin, ear, eye, sinus and wound infections can also be caused by contact with contaminated water. 

An N.C. Department of Water Resources spokesperson said the department “has been in communication” with mill owner Pactiv Evergreen to address these violations, and that the mill has informed DWR that it installed new chlorination equipment at the head of its wastewater treatment plant to prevent future contamination. 

Chlorination is the process the plant uses to disinfect incoming waste, ensuring that biological organisms like fecal coliform don’t make it through the treatment process. There are several opportunities for that process to go wrong, said Clean Water for North Carolina Executive Director Hope Taylor, who has been involved with environmental issues at the mill for decades and has an academic background in chemistry. 

“It could be a problem with the quantity of chemicals that was used for the disinfection,” she said. “If there was an unusually high amount of organic matter, that can use up more of the chlorine, and so the net result is there’s less available to actually oxidize the bacteria and kill them off. So a number of factors can come into play and have the disinfection not working. It’s almost certainly something to do with the disinfection process itself being not carefully controlled.”

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This is not the first time that Pactiv Evergreen has been cited for violating fecal coliform standards. It received similar violations for exceedances on Aug. 30, 2023, less than three months after the mill’s closure, and on April 5, 2022, nearly a year before the closure was announced.

The mill has racked up other recent violations related to operations at its wastewater treatment plant. Pactiv Evergreen is required to perform quarterly tests to ensure the plant’s discharge is not toxic to living things, and it has failed three such tests in a row: for March, June and September 2023. The most recent such violation, stemming from September’s failed test, was issued Dec. 22.

Taylor said she’s not surprised by the mill’s initial struggle following the closure to meet state standards at its wastewater treatment plant, which was built to handle a large volume of discharge from daily operations at the mill. Since paper production ceased in May 2023, that volume has decreased dramatically, with wastewater from the town of Canton now accounting for nearly all of the waste processed there.

An agreement dating back to the 1960s requires the mill to continue treating the town’s wastewater for at least two years following closure. While the mill was still operating, allowing it to process Canton’s wastewater was “almost a favor to the mill,” Taylor said. Papermaking waste has a high carbon content and needed nitrogen — like that found in sewage — to balance it out. Eliminating papermaking waste throws that balance off.

“I would have expected there to be some problems adjusting their treatment to only handling the town’s waste,” she said. “I mean, the treatment plant for the mill is huge for treating waste for a small city. And so things had to have changed very significantly.”

Taylor said she had assumed the mill was gradually adjusting its process as it cut down on production but postulated that perhaps the shutdown had been “more sudden and disruptive” than that.

“But I would not have predicted that the violations that would occur would be increased toxicity or increased bacterial problems,” she continued. “Those are odd violations to have occurred in my mind and my understanding of wastewater treatment.”

The April 2022 fecal coliform violation was related to issues with the process the Town of Canton uses to pretreat its waste before sending it on to the mill’s wastewater treatment plant. The violation prompted the town to start constructing infrastructure improvements to address the problem. While the town does have other sewer-related infrastructure improvements in process, Town Manager Nick Scheuer said that he’s not aware of any existing issues that would impact fecal coliform and toxicity issues at the mill.

“If the pre-chlorination needs change or if there are things that are needed to successfully treat the municipal side, we’re always open for open conversation,” he said. 

It’s unclear exactly why these violations continue to occur. One possibility, said Taylor, could be that town customers are introducing toxic substances into the wastewater, which are showing up more prominently in the form of failed toxicity tests now that they’re not diluted by high volumes of papermaking waste. Canton would not be unique in facing that issue, she said.

“In many cases we found that wastewater treatment plants were stuck with influent discharge from local businesses and industry that were causing their process to fail,” she said of Clean Water for North Carolina’s past work.

The toxicity could also be related to leachate from the mill’s landfill, Taylor said. Leachate is the liquid formed when rainwater filters through the waste stored in a landfill, drawing out the chemicals and constituents they contain. The resulting liquid is toxic and must be handled carefully. Leachate from Pactiv Evergreen’s landfill is collected in ponds and pumped to the wastewater treatment plant for processing.

“I know that landfill leachate is treated in wastewater treatment plants in a number of places,” Taylor said, “and quite frankly, sometimes that leachate could contribute to the toxicity.”

A more detailed picture of the paper mill’s environmental impact over its 115 years of operation is likely to emerge in the coming months. In September, Pactiv Evergreen contractor EnSafe collected water samples that were analyzed for a host of chemicals and contaminants. That analysis is complete but is going through a quality review process from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality prior to being released to the public. Additionally, a research project  from the N.C. Collaboratory headquartered at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, announced in October, aims to investigate contamination levels outside of the mill’s property line.

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