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Folded: chronicling the closure of Pactiv Evergreen’s Canton paper mill

The paper mill at the heart of Canton for 115 years closed for good on June 8, 2023 just three months after the closing was first announced. The paper mill at the heart of Canton for 115 years closed for good on June 8, 2023 just three months after the closing was first announced. Cory Vaillancourt photo

History will whisper through the mountain mists that once upon a time, Pactiv Evergreen’s paper mill in Canton stood as a symbol of industry and economic prosperity for generations. But behind its towering façade, the specter of mismanagement and malfeasance eventually led to a botched closing announcement, a health care coverage crisis and more than a thousand workers helplessly watching their good-paying jobs evaporate like morning dew in the midday summer sun.

Uncertainty continues to haunt Canton and the region, as decades of long-buried damage done to the environment finally sees the light of day.

The future of the company-owned site and its critical wastewater infrastructure both remain vague as local governments brace for unthinkable budgetary impact.

The events that ensued, however, are much more than a timeline of tragedy.

They are a testament to a community still reeling from a deadly flood two years prior coming together as one across political and socioeconomic lines to forge a way forward. They are proof that the people of Canton and Haywood County are guided by compassion and charity, even in the face of inhumanity and greed. They are a demonstration that Mother Nature is eager to heal from what humans have wrought.

These events doubtless marked the end of an era. But one day, history will again whisper that they also marked the beginning of another.

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Feb. 8

A leaked, undated memo obtained exclusively by The Smoky Mountain News reveals plans by Pactiv Evergreen to shut down one of the Canton mill’s four paper-making machines due to declining demand.

Feb. 13

An official from the United Steel Workers Smoky Mountain Local 507 says he thinks the curtailment in output at the mill may be related to union contract talks.

March 6

SMN breaks the stunning announcement of the mill’s closing on Facebook after Politics Editor Cory Vaillancourt, acting on a tip, blends into an employees-only meeting where workers are told the mill will close by summer.

The first story on the mill’s closing appears on SMN’s website just hours after the announcement. In it, then-VP of Beverage Merchandising Byron Racki cites market conditions and the huge cost of upgrading the century-old facility.

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Moments after Pactiv Evergreen’s Moments after Pactiv Evergreen’s announcement that it would soon shutter the mill, the sun sets on more than a century of papermaking in Canton. Cory Vaillancourt photo

Vaillancourt’s account of Racki’s comments remains the only first-hand documentation of what Pactiv told its workers about the closing.

Racki also says that the company will work with the town on the operation of the mill’s wastewater treatment plant, which since the 1960s has treated all of Canton’s municipal waste for free. According to the agreement, in the event of a closure Pactiv must continue to operate the plant for two years.

March 7

As the community explores ways to help laid-off mill workers find employment, SMN is first to report that four of Pactiv’s top executives, including Racki, sold more than $660,000 in company stock just four days before laying off almost 1,000 workers.

Garret K. Woodward, SMN’s arts and entertainment editor, discusses the closing with Canton native Tim Surrett, bassist for bluegrass powerhouse Balsam Range. The group’s song, “Papertown” had become an anthem for the town, especially in the wake of deadly flooding in August 2021.

March 8

In his regular column, Woodward reflects on the closing of the mill and the similarities to the 2005 closing of a Wyeth-Ayerst pharmaceutical plant in his home town, the tiny Canadian border village of Rouses Point, New York.

March 14

SMN is first to report that Pactiv may be in violation of the terms of a $12 million state economic development grant from 2014 if the company follows through with its plans to close the mill. Per the grant application, the average wage at the mill is listed as $84,199 — nearly triple the per capita average in Haywood County.

Locally, Haywood Community College quickly becomes the nexus of community response efforts as Haywood County government surveys business owners on the fiscal impact of the closure.

SMN’s Kyle Perrotti reports on the potential impact of the closure on Papertown’s gritty blue-collar identity.

March 15

Holly Kays, SMN’s outdoors editor, talks to environmental groups about how the closing of the mill could actually improve conditions for flora and fauna in the Pigeon River downstream from the mill.

Ben Best, a 94-year-old retiree from Crabtree, remembers millworkers having a sense of pride in their jobs and how his mill income kept the family’s 180-acre farm going.

March 16

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper says he believes that Pactiv will indeed be in violation of the terms of the $12 million JMAC grant if the mill closes.

March 22

With mandatory WARN notices hitting mailboxes — informing workers of their last day — the international union places Canton’s USW Local 507 under administratorship, stripping titles and duties from the union’s local leaders to ensure the continuity of union operations as employees begin to lose their jobs or leave.

Concerns also begin to emerge over toxic materials and pollution that may be lurking beneath the sprawling 185-acre mill site owned by Pactiv.

March 24

The financial implications of Pactiv’s closure prompt Canton’s town government to explore austerity measures in the coming year’s budget.

March 29

Pactiv receives a notice of violation from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality after a Sept. 20, 2022 water quality test reveals pollution nearly 50% higher than legal limits. It is Pactiv’s 11th violation since May, 2021.

Haywood County Community and Economic Development Director David Francis confirms that a story published in the Waynesville Mountaineer falsely stated that Pactiv’s small satellite facility in Waynesville would soon close. The story shocked already-nervous workers, but the facility remains open as of March 2024.

Union leaders continue bargaining with Pactiv on severance pay for departing workers.

April 5

Haywood County Schools Superintendent Trevor Putnam makes an unusual financial ask of the General Assembly in light of already declining school enrollment projected to continue in light of job loss at the mill.

April 12

Gov. Roy Cooper travels to Pisgah High School, joining Haywood County Commission Chairman Kevin Ensley and mayors of all four county municipalities, including Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers, who calls the rapidly developing situation “a Carolina crisis.”

SMN’s Hannah McLeod reports that pulp and paper classes offered to students at PHS will continue.

April 14

Mayor Smathers announces that the town of Canton will eventually get the mill’s iconic steam-powered whistles and other artifacts.

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Backdropped by the mill, Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers (right) speaks during a prayer vigil for mill workers in Sorrells Street Park as (left to right) Rep. Mark Pless, Alderman Ralph Hamlett, Alderwoman Kristina Proctor and Mayor Pro Tem Gail Mull look on. Cory Vaillancourt photo

May 3

NC Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Elisabeth Biser tells local leaders she plans to hold Pactiv accountable for cleaning up any messes left behind.

Like the Town of Canton, Haywood County Schools begins crafting its annual budget, adjusting it to account for declining enrollment and other issues associated with the Canton mill closure.

May 10

Unlike local governments and the school system, Haywood Community College is in growth mode, requesting a 10% increase in its budget at least partially to fund expanded workforce development and instruction for displaced mill workers.

May 18

Pactiv stuns the community again — this time, by asking for a break on its property tax bill for the 185-acre mill site. According to the company, “The true value of the subject real property is substantially lower than the tax office’s appraised value.”

May 22

Pactiv stuns the community yet again — this time, by failing to inform its health care coverage provider of its intention to close, thus creating a dangerous health care coverage gap for its soon-to-be unemployed workers.

May 24

The subject of the mill’s closing dominates a panel discussion on the future of Western North Carolina’s forests, highlighting unforeseen and potentially negative impacts on forest ecology.

Pactiv receives two new air quality violation notices from the N.C. Division of Air Quality, bringing its total violations since May 2021 to 13.

The mill’s steam-powered whistle, long a fixture of life in Canton, blows at the mill for the last time. Church bells chimed 115 times for each year the mill had been open.

May 31

In anticipation of a hearing on Pactiv’s property tax reduction request, Mayor Smathers says he plans to fight. NC Attorney General Josh Stein visits Canton and reiterates that the state will also fight to enforce the terms of the $12 million JMAC grant.

June 2

Pactiv’s property tax reduction request is soundly rejected during a meeting of the Haywood County Board of Equalization and Review.

June 7

Darryl Hinnant, mayor of Kannapolis, speaks at a town hall, revealing lessons learned when a large employer in his town closed more than 20 years ago. The ensuing revitalization is widely seen as a success story.

At that same town hall, Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson) refuses to tell his constituents what he did to prevent the mill’s closure after SMN informed him of trouble more than a month before Pactiv’s March 6 announcement and rejects help from adjoining Buncombe County.

June 8

Millworkers pay an emotional farewell in Canton, as the last shift ends. Workers leaving the mill for the last time are greeted as heroes.

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Just ahead of the mill’s last shift, some workers left personal protective gear outside. Cory Vaillancourt photo

June 21

Canton logs its eighth minor earthquake since May 23, prompting as-yet unfounded speculation that the mill — or perhaps a higher power — may somehow be responsible.

June 28

Based on similar situations across the country, the closure of the Pactiv’s Canton mill promises to leave complex environmental footprint behind.

July 10

Pactiv’s latest notice of violation from NCDEQ accuses the company of illegally dumping chemicals during the shutdown process. It is Pactiv’s 14th NOV since May 2021.

July 13

Canton government passes an industrial development moratorium aimed at Pactiv, to ensure the town has a say in whatever might move into Pactiv’s 185-acre site. The moratorium is revokable by the town at any time.        

July 26

Laid-off millworkers still struggle with the health care coverage crisis created by Pactiv’s lack of communication with its insurer. Some canceled doctor visits, rationed expensive medications or went without.

July 27

Pactiv Evergreen contests the July 10 chemical dumping allegations.

Aug. 2

Downstream fish populations explode following the mill’s closure less than two months prior.

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A whitetail shiner caught during sampling is held up with the mill in the background. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission photo

Aug. 9

Pactiv earns its 15th notice of violation since May 2021 for toxic wastewater. Over that period, Pactiv has averaged one NOV every two months.

Aug. 16

Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Secretary Reid Wilson visits Canton’s Chestnut Mountain Park and discusses opportunities for supplementing the area’s outdoor recreation economy.

HCC graduates its first class of truck drivers. The program was created specifically to provide mill workers with opportunities for a new careers.

Aug. 17

DEQ Secretary Biser returns to Canton, saying that accountability and remediation of black liquor and fuel oil seeps remain a priority.

Aug. 21

Dashing the hopes of those who thought the mill might one day reopen, Pactiv removes the huge smokestacks that once towered over site.

Aug. 30

Sen. Thom Tillis hosts a brief but wide-ranging town hall at BearWaters Brewing in Canton, taking questions from elected officials and municipal administrators.

Sept. 19

Pactiv earns another notice of violation from NCDEQ, this time for water toxicity. It is Pactiv’s 16th since May 2021.

Sept. 27

Haywood County’s legislative delegation — Sen. Kevin Corbin (R-Macon), Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) and Rep. Mark Pless (R-Haywood) — comes through with record-setting funding to address critical needs, including $38 million for Canton’s future wastewater treatment needs.

Oct. 4

Southwestern Commission Workforce Development Director David Garrett tells Haywood County commissioners that substantial grant funding remains available for dislocated workers to retrain or to learn new skills.

Oct. 25

Planning for a post-mill Canton becomes a critical issue in advance of the November municipal election, as the N.C. Collaboratory, headquartered at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, begins a two- to three-year research project aimed at understanding contamination levels outside the fence line of the shuttered mill.

news timeline zebUNC

Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers leads University of North Carolina Chapel Hill faculty and administrators on a tour of Canton Oct. 19. Holly Kays photo

Oct. 26

Fecal coliform concentrations earn Pactiv its 17th notice of violation since May 2021.

Nov. 8

The declining condition of Pactiv-owned Lake Logan as well as the stability of the lake’s dam play a role in the cancellations of the Lake Logan triathlons.

Nov. 8

Two of Canton’s longtime governing board members, Mayor Pro Tem Gail Mull and Alderman Ralph Hamlett, are both reelected to four-year terms.

Nov. 9

Canton passes a preliminary project budget ordinance for the new wastewater treatment plant, although a site has not yet been selected.

Nov. 15

After alleging poor market conditions caused the mill’s closing, Pactiv is blamed for milk carton shortages in schools, jails and assisted living facilities.


Jan. 3

NCAG Josh Stein, currently running for governor, may not be in position to continue to hold Pactiv accountable — including a possible lawsuit over the JMAC grant — after the November election, but the top Republican and Democratic candidates for attorney general promise to continue Stein’s vigilance.

Jan. 10

Local leaders say Canton's first post-mill municipal budget will be results-oriented but will also reflect declining revenues due to the shutdown.

A release of leachate from the mill’s landfill leachate ponds on Dec. 4, 2023, and another toxic wastewater discharge on Dec. 22, 2023, earns Pactiv two more notices of violation from NCDEQ, its 19th and 20th since May 2021.

Feb. 6

Two more fecal coliform violations earn Pactiv its 21st and 22nd notices of violation since May 2021 — bringing the total to seven since the mill closed in June 2023.

Feb. 21

A somewhat dormant Haywood County nonprofit with experience in massive economic development projects signs a new agreement with the county, asserting a greater economic development role in the future, just as the county announces a substantial economic development planning effort to address a post-mill economy and other regional challenges.




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