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Cancer-causing compound detected at South Carolina paper mill

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

A highly-toxic chemical compound known to cause cancer has been detected at the New Indy Containerboard plant in Catawba, South Carolina.

In addition to causing cancer, the compound known as dioxin can also cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system and interfere with hormones. It's sometimes produced by chlorine bleaching of pulp and paper.

The compound has been detected in four aging waste lagoons at the New Indy plant, and at least one of those lagoons — known as Sludge Lagoon 4 — has been eroding or leaking in recent years, according to a 2020 report filed with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The state says there's no evidence that the toxic compound has leaked into the nearby Catawba River, which is a source of drinking water for some South Carolina towns further downstream. The plant is located about 5,000 feet away from the river's banks.

Ron Aiken, spokesperson for the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control, said the agency believes the lagoons are secure at this time, though a spill or more leakage remains possible.

"A liner could break, a truck could spill," he said, "There always remains that risk of the things that are above ground and could seep into the water table, but at this point, everything is where it's supposed to be."

Some traces of the compound have been detected in groundwater beneath the New Indy plant, though upstream of the waste lagoons and at concentrations "well below" drinking water standards, SCDHEC said in an email.

The contaminated groundwater was also not in the path of any drinking water wells, the state agency said, and monitoring wells located between the waste lagoons and the Catawba river have not detected any dioxins.

"We do have monitoring wells around there and further downstream to make sure we catch anything that does come," Aiken said.

Some local officials, however, told The State newspaper they're concerned of the compound's presence so close to the Catawba river, and said they were not aware that dioxin had been detected at the site.

"It certainly concerns me," state Sen. Mike Fanning told The State, "I will certainly look into it. It is something we would care about. That affects the river and the river affects tons of people downstream, all of whom I represent."

Fanning, a Democrat, represents parts of York, Chester and Fairfield Counties. A representative of the Chester Metropolitan District told The State the city also was not aware of the compound's presence at the site, and that staff members would likely test Chester's water for evidence of any dioxins.

New Indy Containerboard did not respond to questions from WFAE about the contaminated sludge and groundwater, or about possible mitigation efforts.

In an email, SCDHEC said it had "enhanced its oversight of the dams and will continue to inspect and evaluate the embankments and berms."

The New Indy Containerboard plant is also facing lawsuits over a foul odor that sickened many people across York County in 2020.

The EPA fined the plant $1.1 million for air quality violations related to the fumes, and ordered the plant to make improvements.

The plant's manager told news outlets that the company had agreed to pay the fine and cooperate with regulators to make improvements. Those efforts remain ongoing, and the company is required to submit weekly updates, which are posted on SCDHEC's website.

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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