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Evergreen logs nine environmental violations in 18 months

In a photo taken Feb. 1, black liquor deposits sit in the Pigeon River. AECOM photo In a photo taken Feb. 1, black liquor deposits sit in the Pigeon River. AECOM photo

Sept. 27, 2021, was a day of constant phone calls and email notifications for Brendan Davey, regional supervisor at the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality office in Asheville.

That Monday, Davey came into the office to find a backlog of messages as he fielded an oncoming river of complaints — 29, in total. They all came from Canton residents who had woken up to a mysterious white dust covering their cars, gritty and resistant to cleaning.

“This morning a strange, thick white fog appeared that left a gritty, fine white powder on both sides of my vehicles,” reads one complaint. “Even after a thorough car wash, the grit remains.”

Other complaints echo that description and voice concerns about potential health impacts from breathing in suspended particles.  

“What have we been breathing, who is handling the damage to our vehicles and our persons, are there long-term effects we need to be concerned about?” another complaint says. 

The likely source, all agreed, was the Evergreen Packaging paper mill — though, according to Davey, “almost all” said they’d never seen this kind of deposit before. After investigating, Davey wrote that he “strongly suspect(ed)” that the dust came from improper operation of the mill’s No. 5 lime silo dust collection system. When Davey visited the mill on Oct. 1, 2021, he found that the dust collector “appear(ed) to have been repaired,” but noted that the company would still receive a Notice of Violation and Recommendation for Enforcement. 

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The lime dust collector may have been functioning normally during Davey’s visit, but over the past year that has not continued to be the case. Since last October, the DEQ has received numerous complaints of white dust settling on cars near the paper mill, with four dust-related notices of violation. Additionally, since May 2021 it has received violation notices related to release of 20 gallons wastewater containing turpentine, a tall oil soap leak that killed at least 25 fish, and a black liquor seep into the Pigeon River. During the same timeframe, Evergreen was going through a contentious public process to have its wastewater discharge permit renewed. The final permit was issued March 25.  

White dust in Canton 

In an Oct. 28, 2021, reply to the notice of violation sent following the barrage of complaints in September 2021, Evergreen said the deposits were the result of a pandemic-induced supply chain issue. 

Evergreen decided to replace the cartridges in its dust collection system after the N.C. Department of Air Quality observed visible emissions on Sept. 10. It planned to do so during the next scheduled outage on Sept. 23, but when that date arrived the parts had not been delivered. 

“These cartridge filters have historically not required an extensive lead time since they are manufactured in Tennessee,” reads a response from Evergreen signed by Fred Perrett, president of operations and acting general manager for Evergreen’s Canton and Waynesville operations, and by David Clemmons, business unit manager for recovery, utilities and mill operations. “This particular manufacturer informed us that a majority of their personnel were out with COVID-19 at the time we placed our order. This led to additional delays in what should have been an ‘off the shelf/ship the same day’ item.”

As visible emissions continued to increase, mill staff looked for other vendors to supply the parts and expedited the order to arrive the weekend of Sept. 25. By Sept. 30, all filters had been replaced — but not before a layer of white dust had settled on Canton. Evergreen said it gave car wash vouchers to anybody who contacted the mill with a complaint, with exterior detailing provided if a car wash proved ineffective. As of Oct. 25, 2021, about 115 cars had been cleaned or scheduled for cleaning. 

Replacing the cartridge resolved the issue, and afterward the lime silo dust collector operated without visible emissions, Perrett and Clemmons wrote. 

However, just eight months later, lime kiln dust resulted in another violation notice for Evergreen. In March, two air emissions stack testing scenarios were conducted at the mill, and a test of the No. 4 lime scrubber produced emissions of particulate matter — dust — outside the limits set in the N.C. Administrative Code. 

The violation proved a harbinger of repeated dust complaints filed over the subsequent months. 

Between Aug. 9 and Aug. 11, Davey received six complaints of white dust from the paper mill settling on cars and homes in northeast Canton. The event appeared to be similar to the incident the previous September, though less impactful, Davey wrote. 

“Woke up to a thick layer of white stuff on my cars again today,” reads a complaint from a Thompson Street resident who lives about a half-mile northeast of the mill. “Not sure if it’s the same stuff from Evergreen or not but it seems to be similar. Doesn’t just wipe off like dust or pollen.”

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Lime dust covers a windshield near High Street in Canton around Aug. 11. DAQ photo

Just a couple of weeks later, Davey received two additional dust complaints, one from a Canton resident whose car was parked in a Main Street parking lot and another from a resident residing a half-mile northeast of the mill. The complaints indicated that the white particles were larger than they had been before and seemed to wash off a bit easier. In correspondence with DEQ, the mill said it had received 38 complaints from employees and residents during the same timeframe. 

Less than two months ago, the same Thompson Street resident who had contacted Davey in early August emailed him Sept. 17-18 to report white dust settling on cars in the area. 

Following an investigation, Davey concluded that the material in the early August and September dustings was lime dust, while the mid-August dusting was most likely calcium carbonate — limestone dust. 

“While neither is regulated as a federal hazardous air pollutant or an N.C. toxic air pollutant, any kind of fine or coarse particles are regulated as particulate matter,” said Shawn Taylor, public information officer for the N.C. Division of Air Quality. “Very high levels of particulate matter are known to cause heart and lung conditions, particularly in young children and older adults. As with any pollutant, the level of exposure determines the amount of risk.”

Following the complaints received Aug. 9-11, Davey visited the mill and saw the No. 5 lime filter operate for only a short time before it was shut down to have all 48 of its cartridges replaced. They’d been completely replaced May 16, but starting July 15 mill staff noticed small, intermittent puffs of dust, and conditions had since continued to degrade. They said they would have replaced the cartridges then, but the replacements ordered in March still hadn’t arrived. They weren’t delivered until the evening of Aug. 8. 

“Substandard manufacturing” is a possible culprit of the cartridges’ deterioration, the mill wrote in response to emailed questions from Davey, with about one-third of them plugged up to the point of compromising performance. Since October 2021, the mill had written “numerous” purchase orders to a variety of vendors in an effort to have spare cartridges on site at all times for all its dust collectors. However, supply chain issues had kept those orders from being filled. 

“This has proven difficult and certainly played a role in this event, but we do appear to have finally rounded a corner and currently have ample inventory on site,” reads the mill’s response to Davey. 

A notice of violation was later issued to the mill for failure to properly operate and maintain its No. 5 lime dust collector. 

The dust that fell Aug. 23-24 was a different material — calcium carbonate, or limestone dust, which in precipitated form is used as a filler in paper manufacturing. The airborne particles could be coming from the precipitated calcium carbonate plant, which is not owned by Evergreen, or from machine wet end vents and exhaust points, the mill said. There “does not appear to be a clear air permit violation with this event,” Davey concluded. 

When Davey investigated the Sept. 17-18 event, he found another lime dust collector issue related to manufacturing problems. 

On Sept. 14, fire blowback from the No. 5 kiln had damaged the No. 5 dust collector. The filter cartridges were all replaced with filters the mill had decided to try on a trial basis, and the dust collector went back into service the next day. However, by Sept. 17 performance had noticeably degraded, with staff noting visible emissions. They tried to manage the situation by lowering the pulse jet pressure, but the degradation continued, with the lime kiln and dust collector ultimately shut down at 6:45 p.m. that day. The next day, new “more robust” cartridges from a different manufacturer were installed, with the failed filters all removed from the mill’s inventory. 

Davey noted that even after the new cartridges were installed, he received four additional complaints of white dust. This may have been due to residual dust being redeposited, he wrote, but it was also possible that the dust deposition issue had not been fully resolved. 

Subsequent complaints Oct. 7-19 confirmed that the issue was still ongoing, with 21 people contacting Davey to complain of white dust. This, too, was determined to be lime dust. The regional office is also responding to five more dust complaints, reported Oct. 25, Oct. 26, Nov. 2 and Nov. 9, with the source of these issues still under investigation. 

As a result of the dust deposition issues, Evergreen has so far received four notices of violation, with an $8,045 penalty issued for the first one, related to the incident in September 2021. That penalty has been paid in full, Taylor said. No fines were levied in connection with the August and September 2022 dustings because DEQ staff did not observe visible emissions in those events — the mill was already in the process of shutting down to make repairs when Davey arrived. 

“More recent dust issues remain under investigation,” Taylor said. “We will require the facility resolve any issues with its controls and will use our enforcement tools to address noncompliance.” 

Fish kill on the Pigeon 

Even as it’s struggled to control dust deposition, Evergreen has logged multiple water quality violations over the past year and a half. 

On May 4, 2021, 20 gallons of wastewater containing turpentine poured to the ground, with stormwater runoff sweeping it into the Pigeon River. Though a “minor” sheen was observed on the streambank adjacent to the release site, it wasn’t visible downstream, reads a May 18, 2021, notice of violation from the Department of Water Quality. 

In a reply to the notice, Evergreen wrote that a section of pipe, which was supposed to run from the turpentine storage area to a manhole, turned out to be missing. This allowed the mixture of water and turpentine to spray along the side of the 30-foot-tall manhole structure, splashing at a concrete ledge inside the manhole. Impacted soil around the slide gate was removed, with oil-absorbing booms placed in the Pigeon River. Mill staff walked the riverbank both upstream and downstream to confirm that there was only one point of impact. 

“We believe the root cause has been addressed with the installation of the pipe and this issue has been resolved,” the response reads. 

However, a few months later a new pollution issue attracted DEQ’s attention. 

On Nov. 23, 2021, the mill’s environmental staff found dead fish and trace amounts of foam downstream — with about 25 dead fish observed in a five-day follow-up report submitted Dec. 6. At the same time, a discharge monitoring report found that on Nov. 23, 24, 25 and 30, 2021, biological oxygen demand — the amount of oxygen aquatic microorganisms use up — was higher than allowed under state regulations, posing a problem for native aquatic species. The Division of Water Resources issued two notices of violation, one on Jan. 3 focusing on the biological oxygen demand exceedance and the other on April 7 citing five specific water quality violations surrounding the fish kill. 

“Evergreen Packaging places paramount importance upon permit compliance and water resource protection and regrets the issues that led to the upset of the mill wastewater treatment plant and subsequent, apparent impacts to water quality in the Pigeon River and aquatic life,” General Manager John McCarthy and Wastewater Treatment Plant ORC Tracy Willis wrote in a written response to the violation notice Feb. 3. 

They noted that the mill has a “significant history” of wastewater permit compliance, “particularly regarding BOD (biological oxygen demand) limits.” Only two biological oxygen demand exceedances were identified during a review of the last 15 years, the mill said, the most recent in 2012. 

“Clearly, the recent BOD limit non-compliance was a rare event and effective treatment of wastewater and discharge of compliant effluent should be expected,” McCarthy and Willis wrote. 

The Division of Water Resources determined that the incident was severe enough to warrant two fines totaling $30,548, which have since been paid in full. 

“The wastewater plant’s inability to fully treat the effluent resulted in a fish kill with dead and distressed fish observed six miles downstream of the NPDES outfall,” reads a pair of April 27 documents outlining the penalties. “The discharge of effluent having an elevated level of BOD5 could negatively impact the aquatic habitat and not be immediately observable.” 

A reignited groundwater seep 

Even as the penalty process for the fish kill was wrapping up, another set of environmental violations was brewing for Evergreen. 

On Jan. 28, Evergreen’s environmental staff found a production byproduct known as black liquor “visibly present” in the Pigeon River — in the area of a previously documented groundwater seep. The seep has a long history, first receiving a notice of violation in 1994. According to an April 22 letter from Collin Day, regional supervisor for the DEQ’s Inactive Hazardous Sites Branch, the discharge into the river is likely associated with this documented groundwater contamination. 

Communication on the issue between International Paper, Evergreen and various divisions of the DEQ has been ongoing since, with the Division of Water Resources issuing a notice of violation on April 11, updating and reissuing it Oct. 17. The Division of Waste Management issued its own notice Oct. 20. Each notice listed three violations, for a total of six between them. 

“The seep does not appear to currently be ongoing, but it has been observed in past years, so over a longer time scale it could be considered to be ongoing,” said Anna Gurney, public information officer for the Division of Water Resources. 

Analysis is underway to determine how the seep might impact water quality in the Pigeon River. A 38-page report from TRC Environmental Consulting, filed in October, lays out plans to sample surface water and soils in the area to learn more about environmental impacts and toxicity concerns. On Oct. 17, AECOM Technical Services Inc. submitted a plan to sample groundwater for overall analysis as well as a dissolved metals analysis. 

In a Jan. 31 email, the mill’s environmental manager Chuck Cranford said he did not believe the seep contained an “oil or hazardous substance RQ exceedance,” but in a reply Division of Waste Management hydrogeologist David Ramey warned the mill that “responsibility for missing contaminants lies with you all.”

“An immediate need of the DEQ (Inactive Hazardous Sites Branch) is surface water sampling results from the Pigeon River to ensure that black liquor/seep material/discharging contaminated groundwater is not impacting the Pigeon River… we have concerns regarding whether a laboratory analysis has been performed on a sample of the liquor to determine its constituents in terms of contaminants of concern,” Ramey wrote in a March 18 email to mill representatives.  

Canton’s drinking water comes from above the mill, outside of the area impacted by the seep. However, the seep could impact downstream water quality and ecology in the river.  

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The No. 5 lime dust collector emits dust prior to being shut down for repairs Sept. 27, 2021. DAQ photo

‘We don’t want any of those violations’

Evergreen Packaging is critical to Haywood County’s economy, employing more than 1,000 people with competitive pay rates and benefit packages. But it’s also been a frequent target for criticism from people concerned about impacts to air and water, both of which are vital to the county’s tourism industry. 

Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers said that, while he’s disappointed to hear about the recent violations, overall he’s encouraged by the mill’s continual progress in recent decades to reduce its environmental impact and improve its communication with town leaders. 

“When you’re operating a major plant, problems develop,” Smathers said. “To me what I look for — and I’ve seen this in the mill in the past, I see it now — is they do not have an attitude of acceptance, to say, ‘Well, this is just this is going to happen. Sorry.’ I’ve had some sincere conversations with many of the leadership in the mill, and there is a sincere belief and understanding that they continuously have to keep doing what they’re supposed to do and do better.”

That said, Smathers is concerned by these recent violations. After all, as exemplified by the recently opened Chestnut Mountain Nature Park, Canton is in the midst of an effort to rebrand itself as an outdoor destination — in addition to its identity as a mill town. 

“I’m not a scientist by trade, but each one of those are serious concerns,” said Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers. “We don’t want any discharge — air, water, land. We don’t want any of those violations. No citizen does.” 

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