Canton leaders make ‘big stink’ over big stink

Potential problems with Pactiv’s wastewater treatment plant in Canton are being reported by area residents. Potential problems with Pactiv’s wastewater treatment plant in Canton are being reported by area residents. Google Earth photo

Festering frustration with nearly every aspect of Pactiv Evergreen’s actions taken in closing its Canton paper mill a year ago spilled over into a town meeting May 9, when board members took the opportunity to dump all over Pactiv for its latest putrid mess.

“One of my favorite George Strait songs says, ‘there's a difference between living and living well.’ There's also a difference between running something and running it well,” said Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers in reference to recent social media complaints about the smell of human feces emanating from the treatment plant Pactiv uses to treat the town’s wastewater.

Since at least 1964, Pactiv has treated the town’s wastewater for almost no cost, alongside its own waste from the papermaking process. An agreement in place since then stipulates that Pactiv must continue to treat Canton’s wastewater for two years after any shutdown. That two-year period will end on March 9, 2025, per a termination notice served on the town by Pactiv on March 8, 2023.

Pactiv has indeed continued to treat Canton’s wastewater, but it’s thought that a change in the chemistry of the treatment process due to the decrease in biproducts from the papermaking procedure has resulted in the unpleasant odor.

“This is not acceptable. It is their responsibility to run it and run it well, because how you run something shows me what you think and how you respect us,” Smathers said. “I am not happy. I wish I could say I was surprised, but [Pactiv] needs to do what they need to do legally. They're still members of this community, but you're going to respect us, period. We've been through enough.”

On March 6, 2023, Pactiv officials plunged the region into uncertainty when it told workers during a closed-door meeting that the 115-year-old mill would shut down within three months. Local leaders were given no notice, and many of the thousand-odd millworkers found out on social media, some while they were at work.

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Over the ensuing weeks and months, governments, educational institutions and nonprofits had to scramble to help soon-to-be displaced workers find jobs and access benefits. Pactiv failed to inform its health care coverage carrier about the closing, throwing some workers into a dangerous health care coverage gap. Five months later, Pactiv was blamed for a milk carton shortage that affected jails, nursing homes and schools. The company went on to ask for a tax break on its 185-acre parcel, which was rejected but is currently being appealed. That budget year, a growing Canton put the brakes on several projects in anticipation of a massive deficit in tax revenues. This budget year, tax collector Wanda Lurvey broke down in tears while informing Canton’s governing board of a projected million-dollar hole in its $12 million budget.

All the while, closed-session economic development negotiations have been taking place with Pactiv over the future of the mill site, which straddles the Pigeon River and takes up a significant portion of Canton’s downtown.

Thus far, those fruitless negotiations have left local officials feeling drained; government administrators want the parcel put back into productive use as soon as possible, but without a solid plan for wastewater treatment, further economic development opportunities could go down the drain.

Canton wants to continue operating the plant after Pactiv’s obligations are satisfied in order to give the town time to construct a new plant, estimated to be at least five years, but per the terms of the agreement Pactiv could theoretically begin charging the town exorbitant rates for treatment at any time.

Pactiv could even cut the town off, even though it has to continue to operate the plant so it can treat leachate oozing up from one of its landfills there. Effectively, Canton’s businesses and residents are being held hostage.

“I think everybody really knows good and well that they have a stranglehold on us,” said Alderman Ralph Hamlett. “And I think they know good and well, they can twist it and try to make us bleed or maybe even make concessions along the way which otherwise we wouldn't make … it concerns me how they're going to continue playing this game — and make no mistake about it, in large measure it is a game. It's a game for everybody except the town of Canton.”

Mayor Pro Tem Gail Mull, a longtime Canton governing board member who retired from the mill after decades of employment, expressed her general annoyance with Pactiv’s conduct, accusing the $6 billion multinational company of acting in bad faith.

“The milk of human kindness does not flow through [Pactiv’s] veins. They never intended to make an honorable agreement. They closed under cover of night. They've done everything on earth to shaft us,” Mull said. “All that aside, they are just not nice people. They're not one of us, I can tell you. They’re the neighbor that lives next door that plays his music too loud and shoots your dog. This is the neighbor they are, and we've got to realize that, and, we can't trust them. There's no agreement we can make with them that they'll follow through. That's what I believe.”

Alderman Tim Shepard, usually a man of few words, stuck to that strategy with a brief statement that was profound nonetheless.

“It's a simple thing that I think gets lost sometimes,” Shepard said. “If you say you're going to do something, you do it. And you do it like it’s supposed to be done — you do it right.”

Smathers said that Pactiv has sole responsibility for the proper operation of the plant and that on top of everything else the town is currently dealing with — economic instability, the possible loss of wastewater treatment, federal involvement in pollution-related remediation and the threat of a century-old paper mill rotting to the ground as the site languishes into its second year of silence — the town doesn’t have the capacity to act as Pactiv’s complaint department.

“We shouldn't be the middleman,” he said.

Smathers asked that all complaints about the odor be directed to Pactiv.

Residents with concerns should email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., an address that is forwarded to Pactiv. The company’s main phone number for its American headquarters in Lake Forest, Illinois, is 847.482.2000.

Pactiv did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the situation.

Alderwoman Kristina Proctor was not present at the May 9 meeting due to a family emergency.

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