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SC Paper Mill Linked To Foul Odor Ordered To Take Corrective Action

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The New Indy Containerboard paper mill in Catawba, South Carolina.

South Carolina's Department of Health and Environmental Control has ordered a paper mill in Catawba, South Carolina, to take immediate steps to reduce the amount of air contaminants produced by the mill.

The development comes amid the state's ongoing investigation into the source of a foul, rotting smell that's been permeating homes in York and Lancaster counties and the surrounding area. The stench has been the subject of more than 17,135 complaints filed with South Carolina from February through May 7, 2021.

The order, issued Friday, May 7, says the New Indy Containerboard Paper Mill on Cureton Ferry Road has been producing undesirable levels of air contaminants. The facility had recently switched from making white paper to brown paper and noted in its permit application that doing so could result in an increase in hydrogen sulfide emissions.

Hydrogen sulfide is a flammable, colorless gas that has a rotten egg odor, according to the state. It can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, or throat, difficulty breathing for some asthmatics, and may also cause headaches, poor memory, tiredness, and balance problems.

Staff with SCDHEC said they experienced strong, offsite odors near the paper mill that were characteristic of hydrogen sulfide, and conducted an investigation that took residents' complaints and matched them with air mass and wind speed information to trace the odor back to the area surrounding the paper mill.

A separate investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency also found concentrated levels of hydrogen sulfide near and downwind from the facility.

The paper mill has denied responsibility for the smell and said a consulting firm it had hired to investigate the odor did not find evidence of a bad smell near the facility.

As a result of the state's investigation, state environmental officials are ordering the plant to take several corrective actions. They include requiring the plant to reevaluate its operations and examine all potential sources of the odor and elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide. The plant must also come up with a plan to regularly test hydrogen sulfide levels and air emissions on and off the property, and share the results with the state.

The state is also ordering the plant to submit a corrective action plan on or before June 15 that addresses operational issues that might be contributing to the odor. The plan must have a timeline for implementing the corrective actions and receive the state's approval.

"This order clearly defines immediate actions that New Indy must take to ensure good air quality for the people who live and work near the facility," said Dr. Edward Simmer, DHEC director, in a statement. "We are hopeful that affected residents will begin to see a quick and lasting improvement to these odors."

Gov. Henry McMaster also praised the move, saying in a statement, "I'm confident that this order will bring long-term resolution to this matter and ease the concerns of York and Lancaster County residents."

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Nick de la Canal is a reporter for WFAE covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal