Accountability, remediation focus of DEQ secretary’s Canton mill visit

Haywood County Republican Rep. Mark Pless (left) speaks on Aug. 17 in Canton with Elizabeth Biser, secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality.  Cory Vaillancourt photo Haywood County Republican Rep. Mark Pless (left) speaks on Aug. 17 in Canton with Elizabeth Biser, secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality. Cory Vaillancourt photo

Elisabeth Biser, secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, made her second visit to Canton last week, touring Pactiv Evergreen’s shuttered paper mill and vowing to hold the company accountable for environmental issues that could poison future development of the parcel. 

“The immediate issues that we’re looking at currently are the black liquor and fuel oil seeps that are ongoing,” Biser said. “We’re actually working with EPA on the assessment or remediation of that.” 

Biser’s comments about Pactiv’s responsibility to clean up its own messes demonstrate the unified front that state officials, including Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, have made during trips to Canton after the mill’s closure was announced to employees on March 6.

“Step one is to look at the active implications of that ongoing issue,” Biser said. “Next, we’ll take additional steps to do further assessments and see what additional remediation activities need to occur.”

Paper making operations on Pactiv’s 185-acre parcel began more than 60 years before the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its associated clean air/clean water regulations. Since the closure of the mill in June, inspectors have been learning more and more about the environmental impacts of the mill’s operations over its 115 years in existence.

If recent history is any indicator, those impacts are not good.

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Since May 2021, Pactiv has been issued 14 notices of violation by Biser’s DEQ, including for accidental releases of turpentine and tall oil soap, excessive E. coli levels and repeated emissions of a gritty white dust that settled on nearby homes and vehicles. 

Pactiv’s most recent violation, issued on July 10, accuses the company of improperly disposing of chemicals directly into its wastewater treatment system after it had already announced it was leaving town. Pactiv has denied it did anything wrong.

The company has already paid more than $41,000 in penalties associated with the violations — small potatoes for a $6 billion multi-national corporation where the average millworker’s wage is more than twice that figure.

“Notices of violation are what we use whenever there are violations that are observed or are noted,” Biser said. “Those evaluations, I believe, so far have spoken for themselves. We will continue to hold Pactiv accountable as we do all actors in the state.”

Another testament to the consequences of Pactiv’s operations, which straddle the Pigeon River, has recently emerged, but it’s not about what’s in the ground — it’s about what’s in the river.

Officials from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s Inland Fisheries Division told The Smoky Mountain News in August that downstream fish populations had “exploded” since the shutdown, including a 15-fold increase in the number of fish in the Pigeon River between the mill and the downstream bridge in Clyde.

The sampling also noted a doubling of the number of fish species found during the sampling process, from 14 prior to the shutdown to 28 after.

Biser said that environmental monitoring would continue to occur, and that further assessment of Pactiv’s landfills in Haywood County would be needed to ensure they don’t become a problem.

That leaves only the wastewater treatment plant to contend with, if the parcel is to be returned to productive use. Since the 1960s, the mill has treated the town of Canton’s wastewater at no cost to taxpayers. An agreement signed at that time stipulates that the mill would have to continue operating the facility two years after any shutdown occurs. 

The ticking of that clock grows louder each day. Canton Town Manager Nick Scheuer, along with Haywood County’s Community and Economic Development Director David Francis have been working tirelessly on a solution, which won’t likely happen without help from the General Assembly.

“The biggest thing I’m working on is the money to build a [wastewater] treatment facility,” said Rep. Mark Pless. “I don’t really have a role in the design or the decision of where it goes. I’m charged with finding the money.”

Pless said he’s been given encouragement from House leadership and that a substantial financial request will be in the budget. But first, Republicans in the House and Senate need to agree on a budget, which is currently overdue by nearly two months.

So far, Pless has been successful in bringing taxpayer money into Canton, especially to repair damage from devastating flooding that struck the town two years ago last week.

“I’m optimistic that we’re going to have everything we need to move forward, and if it looks like we’re short, we’ll come back and address that in a few years, because it’s going to take them a while to do that,” he said. “But I think we’re going to be okay with it.”

After a site is selected for the new wastewater plant, which will cost tens of millions of dollars, it will still take years to design and build it, meaning that after the two-year period of Pactiv’s wastewater treatment operations expires, someone’s going to have to pay to keep the treatment plant in operation until the new facility comes on line.

Pless said he’s still not received an operating cost from Pactiv officials.

“I met with Evergreen, I guess it’s been eight weeks ago now or longer, and that was one of the things I asked them. I need to know what it’s going to cost to keep it going because we can’t do without it and if the town of Canton can’t afford it, then I need to look for funding opportunities,” he said. “I have told them, I don’t need to know six months before you’re going to stop, I need to know ahead of time because I really need to put some things in place to where we’re not surprised like we were with the closure of the mill.”

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