How the sale of Canton’s mill site may impact EPA efforts

The Pigeon River has been the site of two separate cleanups that involve the EPA. File photo The Pigeon River has been the site of two separate cleanups that involve the EPA. File photo

In the hours following the announcement that Pactiv Evergreen’s paper mill property in Canton may have a new owner in the coming months, news came and fast and furious.

Plenty of questions remain unanswered, however, including what will happen with the ongoing environmental cleanup at the property. 

Last week, Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers confirmed that Spirtas Worldwide, a Missouri company that specializes in demolition, cleanup and repurposing of industrial sites, signed a letter of intent to buy the property. In a conversation with The Smoky Mountain News, CEO Eric Spirtas didn’t offer much information on what role the company will play in the cleanup, stating that it was too early in the 60-day due diligence process to know for sure.

The EPA has become involved in the last year and has designated part of the property a Superfund site. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as Superfund, allows the EPA to both clean up contaminated sites and also force the responsible parties to either perform a cleanup or reimburse the government for the cleanup cost. But while the Pactiv site is technically a Superfund site, it isn’t designated as high-priority. Rather, it is considered a critical removal action, which tend to take only a year or so to finish.

The administrative order of consent addresses two chemicals that have impacted the Pigeon River — the seeps of No. 6 fuel oil, which was used for heating and energy generation purposes; and black liquor, a byproduct of the papermaking process. Water samples reviewed by the EPA led to the determination there had been releases of both.

Ken Rhame, the on-site coordinator who’s represented the EPA in the cleanup, said that when the letter of intent was signed, he was informed by Pactiv of the potential sale. He said Spirtas can do the work required, but Pactiv knows it maintains liability.

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“In my conversation with Pactiv yesterday, once they informed us of intent to sell, they told me they’re committed to removal and working with us for the foreseeable future for black liquor and fuel oil, as spelled out in the [administrative order of consent], and eventually they’ll transition to the new company if any other issues surface,” Rhame said. “You can’t transfer the liability.”

Likewise, Wilda Cobb, the EPA attorney handling the case, said she spoke with Pactiv about the sale and added that the company may be responsible for future environmental issues caused when the company owned the property, no matter when they may be discovered.

“Under the law, Evergreen will remain liable for all releases that happened during the time they owned the property,” she said, adding that a future release of a toxic substance could also fall on Spirtas should that company be responsible for a release of a toxic chemical.

The AOC stipulates that the EPA needs to receive written notice ahead of a property transfer.

“… prior to entering into a contract to Transfer any of its property that is part of the Site, or 60 days prior to a Transfer of such property, whichever is earlier, (a) give written notice to the proposed transferee that the property is subject to this Settlement; and (b) give written notice to EPA of the proposed Transfer, including the name and address of the transferee.”

As of late last week, while Cobb said she spoke with Pactiv about the potential transfer, she has not received a formal written notice.

There is a chance that Pactiv or Spirtas may be held liable for future cleanups, too, whether by the EPA or the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. In recent months, Pactiv Evergreen has received notices of violation for several items, including discharge toxicity and high fecal coliform concentrations. Fecal coliform is a group of bacteria that includes disease-causing species such as E.coli, which has led to the stench many have noticed recently coming from Pactiv’s wastewater treatment plant, which also treats the town’s sewage. While most coliform bacteria do not cause disease, some strains of E.coli cause serious illness.

And before long, the public should be able to gain more extensive insights into the mill’s overall environmental impact. Last September, EnSafe, the contractor Pactiv is partnering with to collect water samples to analyze for chemicals and contaminants, conducted its first major quarterly analysis, and another was completed in January.

A preliminary report from sampling conducted on mill property in June 2023 revealed that one site — a pit dug along the exposed riverbank — had extremely high levels of several toxic metals. Lead levels were 2,796 times higher than the state standard. Copper was 332 times higher, chromium 21 times higher, nickel 17 times higher, zinc five times higher and arsenic nearly four times higher. Beryllium came in more than 30% above the state limit. The results were expected to be representative of the water-saturated soils beneath the riverbed in that area.

Additionally, a research project from the N.C. Collaboratory headquartered at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, announced in October that it will investigate contamination levels outside of the mill’s property line.

For the EPA to get involved in another cleanup, NCDEQ would have to submit a removal site evaluation. In addition, there’s no guarantee another entity may not file a lawsuit, depending on how the cleanup plays out and what other environmental issues may be discovered.

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