CATAWBA, S.C. — Frustration is growing in York County ahead of Friday's deadline for public comment on a proposed consent decree between the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and New-Indy Containerboard after regulators accused the paper mill of releasing dangerous levels of hydrogen sulfide into the air.
Residents have until Friday, March 11, to submit public comment on the EPA's proposed penalty against the company. New-Indy has received thousands of complaints since early 2021 about a horrible smell from the mill's emissions. The EPA is proposing a $1.1 million penalty against the company and lays the groundwork for changes New-Indy has to make to their manufacturing.
The Department of Justice extended the comment period in February for an additional 30 days. Homeowners in the area have filed thousands of complaints alleging the paper mill's emissions caused them to develop nosebleeds, headaches and chronic coughing.
New documents show in its public comment, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control is asking for the final agreement to include explicit maintenance, operation, and anti-backsliding requirements.
On Thursday, one day before the deadline, the EPA dumped a ton of documents giving more insight into what’s happening at New-Indy. Lawyers asked the EPA for another extension to the public comment period so they had enough time to go through the information but that was denied.
They believe the information could help build their case against New-Indy.
“It’s just sort of one more act in a line of disappointing acts frankly from the EPA. The EPA is charged with protecting the residents, we represent the residents so theoretically our interests should be aligned. Unfortunately, that’s not the case,” Chase T. Brockstedt, one of the attorneys representing homeowners said.
WCNC Charlotte reached out to the EPA for a response to this claim and has not heard back.
Homeowners say the situation hasn’t gotten much better in the time since their complaints.
“I get an instant headache. Sometimes my face tingles. I get a little dizzy,” Kerri Bishop said.
Attorneys representing the homeowners say the EPA's proposed consent decree is too soft on New-Indy. In the proposed settlement, the paper mill would pay $1.1 million.
“That’s only about 48 cents per person in the affected area so it’s not much," Bishop said.
When asked for a response to homeowners' and attorney's concerns that the consent decree doesn't solve the problem, a representative for New-Indy released the following statement on Thursday:
“New-Indy fully supports the terms of the consent decree and has welcomed public participation in the process. Residents and other stakeholders have had ample opportunity to weigh in about the proposed decree. The mill is an important source of economic activity for the region with more than 400 employees. The consent decree protects the public’s interests and will allow the mill and its employees to continue to operate in a safe and healthy manner.”
David Hoyle, one of the attorneys involved, said the decree is "analogous to putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound."
Hoyle told WCNC Charlotte in January that homeowners are concerned about two requirements in the consent decree, including a directive that New-Indy must operate their steam stripper at all times. A steam stripper is a piece of equipment that reduces the number of pollutants released by paper mills.
Hoyle argued the EPA should require New-Indy to install a new steam stripper, citing a May 2021 email in which an EPA employee wrote the plant would "need additional stripper capacity..."
He also said the hydrogen sulfide monitors cover too small of an area and claimed the EPA isn't tracking other toxic chemicals he believes the company is releasing into the air.
"It's like taking your fitness tracker and then putting it on a dog and going to your doctor and saying you're getting enough exercise," Hoyle said. "That data may be accurate, but the conclusion that’s being suggested just isn't true."
The EPA has said the consent decree will not stop them from investigating other chemicals released by New-Indy, and the agency said they‘ve requested additional information from the mill about potential pollutants being released into the air.
The mill, which is part-owned by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, is the subject of two lawsuits that could potentially be consolidated into class-action status.
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