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Cancer-causing toxins leaking into Catawba River, according to new report on New-Indy

The New-Indy Paper Mill is accused of allowing dioxins to make their way into the Catawba River, which is frequently used for recreation and drinking water.

CATAWBA, S.C. — The New-Indy Paper Mill is once again in hot water with new allegations the plant is allowing cancerous materials to make their way into the Catawba River. These allegations surfaced in a new report called for by a law firm, which now says New-Indy needs to clean it up or face another lawsuit.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Class-action lawsuit against New-Indy can continue, federal judge rules

“They were putting us all in danger in the name of making money," Mandy Powers Norrell, a Lancaster County attorney who is a plaintiff in this latest case, said. "That’s offensive to me, that’s offensive to me on behalf of all my neighbors."

An avid kayaker, Norrell said she is now concerned about the Catawba River after a new report said it may contain dioxins, which are toxic materials that can cause cancer if ingested in certain amounts. 

According to the report, which was conducted by Dr. Harvey A. Cohen on behalf of attorneys representing plaintiffs, up to 100 million gallons of groundwater containing toxins make their way into the Catawba River each year.

"I have grown up in Lancaster, I’ve lived here my whole life, and my family has been here for multiple generations," Powers Norrell said. "The Catawba River is our water source and our water source is our life source.”

Catawba Riverkeeper Brandon Jones said dioxins come from waste stored in New-Indy’s unlined pits, which move into the river through groundwater. He said more testing is needed to figure out exact amounts but doesn’t see cause for immediate concern.

“What we have here is a large industrial polluter having this pollution, instead of going through their pipe that’s been permitted, going into the groundwater illegally into the river," Jones explained, "And from there it can also build up in fish, it can also cause issues in the flora and fauna.” 

Still, Jones said drinking water sourced from the Catawba River is safe as it is tested frequently. 

“Further downstream it has not been detected at levels that would be concerning for swimmers, recreators, people drinking from the municipal water," Jones said.

But in a notice of intent to sue, law firm Motley Rice said New-Indy needs to clean up its act or face another lawsuit. 

New-Indy issued the following statement to WCNC Charlotte in response to the allegations: 

"New-Indy Catawba denies the baseless accusations that were irresponsibly made in the October 26 report in The Charlotte Observer and The State newspapers that dioxin is seeping into the Catawba River from the mill property. This accusation was leveled by trial lawyers to gain leverage in ongoing litigation and is demonstrably false. 

Dioxin is a highly toxic chemical. Small amounts of the compound were left on the property by a previous owner of the facility, a byproduct of the bleaching process used by the Bowater mill (and many other mills throughout the U.S.) to make white paper. That practice was discontinued nearly 20 years ago. At no point since New-Indy acquired the mill on Dec. 31, 2018, has the facility produced dioxin. 

New-Indy Catawba has spent considerable time and effort to identify the areas on the mill property where the compound is located and to confirm that it is not migrating from the property, including through groundwater. New-Indy Catawba maintains 15 wells throughout the mill property so that it can carefully monitor dioxin levels. The mill regularly reports the results from those monitoring wells to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. 

The most recent report was prepared for New-Indy in June 2022 by S&ME., Inc., a South Carolina-based environmental engineering firm. That report clearly shows that no hazardous level of dioxin was detected in any of the monitoring wells. In fact, the monitoring well with the highest concentration contained 1/15 the amount of dioxin that South Carolina permits in drinking water. 

The aerial photograph of the New-Indy Catawba property shows the 15 monitoring well locations on site. The only well to detect a nominal amount of dioxin was R-29-MW-1, which is located more than a half-mile from the Catawba River."

In a response to WCNC Charlotte, DHEC said so far extensive data reviewed by the agency has not indicated a release of dioxins into the Catawba River but it is in the process of reviewing this new report. 

Contact Indira Eskieva at ieskieva@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: DHEC fines New-Indy Containerboard $129,000 over 'rotten egg' smell


DHEC recently received a copy of the attached letter that alleges the facility is/or has the potential to leak dioxins to groundwater and the Catawba River. As support for these allegations, the letter refers to a report by Dr. Harvey A. Cohen concerning sampling performed at the site. We are in the process of beginning to review the letter and the report in detail.

To date, extensive data has been reviewed by DHEC that has not indicated a release of dioxins into the Catawba River. Dioxins have a very low water solubility and a low volatility, so they tend to settle and cling to sediment. Dioxin has been detected in soil samples taken from sludge in the wastewater basins and not in samples taken elsewhere onsite. Dioxin has been detected at very low concentrations in groundwater at some onsite monitoring wells, but the levels detected are well below maximum contaminant levels for drinking water.

It's important to note that:

  • Public drinking water in the area comes from the Catawba River at a location upstream from New Indy.
  • All private wells identified in a well survey that's been conducted are either located:
    • on the opposite side of the Catawba river, which serves as a barrier to groundwater flow, or
    • in areas before groundwater flows under the facility

As noted above, we are in the process of beginning to review in detail this letter and report. All previous data and information do not suggest a potential risk of impact to drinking water sources.

DHEC is continuing to take actions that require the facility to meet all applicable state and federal laws for ensuring its operations do not negatively impact nearby homes and communities. The U.S. EPA also is involved.

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