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Foam Along Catawba River May Be Linked To South Carolina Paper Mill, Riverkeeper Says

Clouds of foam float atop the water at the Cedar Creek Dam on South Carolina's Lake Wateree.
Catawba Riverkeeper
Clouds of foam float atop the water at the Cedar Creek Dam on South Carolina's Lake Wateree.

Environmental officials in South Carolina are investigating reports of unnatural foam forming along the Catawba River, and one of the possible causes is a paper mill already under investigation for a foul odor along the North and South Carolina border.

Catawba Riverkeeper Brandon Jones says he first started getting reports about the form in the fall of 2020, around the same time that the New Indy Containerboard paper mill began switching from making bleached paper to brown paper.

The foam was chunky in some areas, and seemed to form in places where the water was aerated. That included the shoals at Landsford Canal State Park, the dam at Fishing Creek Lake, the dam at Great Falls-Dearborn Reservoir, and the Cedar Creek Dam on Lake Wateree.

Jones says he's now working with South Carolina's Department of Health and Environmental Control to collect samples and test the foam next week.

"We want to know exactly what chemicals are causing that, and be able to track it," he said.

The foam may be harmless, or it could be a sign of elevated levels of phosphates and sulfates in the water — possibly caused by a change in chemicals discharged by the paper mill in last few months.

Elevated levels of phosphates can contribute to toxic algae blooms, which can be deadly to pets and wildlife, and can cause problems with drinking water.

Jones said preliminary testing by the state has already shown that the foam is not caused by rainfall, and he says the foam has been showing up upstream of the river's hydroelectric facilities, which rules them out as a potential cause, as well.

He said permit requests filed by New Indy as it made the switch from bleached paper to brown paper also showed that the chemicals it planned to discharge could cause a significant rise in foam.

Jones said results of the test should be available within two weeks.

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Nick de la Canal is the host of Weekend Edition on Saturday/Sunday mornings, and a reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal