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'We are prisoners in our own homes' | Rock Hill residents speak up at EPA hearing over proposed New-Indy settlement

The EPA is still taking public comment on the proposed settlement through Feb. 9.

ROCK HILL, S.C. — The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hosted a public hearing Tuesday to allow the public to comment on the proposed settlement that would require New-Indy to minimize hydrogen sulfide emissions and pay a $1.1 million civil penalty. 

The proposed settlement comes after nearly a year of complaints regarding an odor emanating from the area near the plant. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control said it started receiving complaints regarding the odor in January 2021.

RELATED: A $1.1 million consent decree between the EPA and New Indy is proposed. The idea is being slammed

The public hearing was held Tuesday night at the Rock Hill Sports & Events Center. In-person attendance was capped at 150 people, though people were able to register for virtual attendance as well.

The EPA's medical experts kicked off the meeting with information about toxic chemicals, odors and their impacts on health -- stressing that not one chemical, toxicant or social factor can be the sole reason for disease or health. 

Residents living near the New-Indy paper mill were quick to dismiss those comments, though.

"To try and tell us that this is no health issue is just disrespectful," one person said. "This is not a nuisance smell. We are prisoners in our own homes." 

The public comment period turned personal for many. One person said their 90-year-old grandmother had no history of health issues but has started getting nosebleeds.

"My whole family is sitting at home, we can't even go outside," the person said. 

Another person said the odor is so strong, it wakes up their wife, who is a cancer survivor, during her sleep. 

But not everyone at the meeting felt strongly about the smell. 

"I've been working at that mill for 21 years," one man said. "This smell has not really changed at all. Every paper mill in the whole world has this smell." 

The EPA is still taking public comment on the proposed settlement through Feb. 9. After that, the EPA and the Department of Justice will decide whether to continue with the agreement. 

RELATED: EPA: Proposed settlement requires New-Indy to minimize hydrogen sulfide emissions, pay $1.1 million civil penalty

The EPA previously issued an emergency order on May 13, 2021, to the paper mill in an effort to "prevent imminent and substantial endangerment to surrounding communities." 

The EPA also previously issued the Clean Air Act Section 303 Emergency Order to New-Indy, requiring New-Indy to install hydrogen sulfide monitors and prohibiting the company from emitting hydrogen sulfide above health-based levels from its operations.

In a statement previously issued to WCNC Charlotte, New-Indy Catawba's mill manager said, "New-Indy worked with the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve this matter and will comply fully with the agreement. The mill has cooperated with regulators throughout the process, implemented a long list of improvements, and is grateful for this positive and constructive outcome."

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