Paper mill stench is the subject of a Federal Court hearing

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New Indy Paper Mill. Caroline from the south.

Photo courtesy of WFAE/Google Maps Radio

A South Carolina paper mill accused of producing foul odors that sickened neighbors near Charlotte is pressuring a federal court to launch a lawsuit by those who want compensation for the troubles they suffered because of the smelly air.

A team of lawyers for the New Indy paper company was in federal court on Wednesday, arguing that the class action lawsuit is unwarranted and not worth the court’s time.

During a two-hour hearing at Columbia, they disputed claims that the stench from the York County plant affected people within 20 miles and on both sides of the state line. They also questioned claims about illnesses and injuries people say they have suffered from breathing in the potent smells.

New Indy’s attorneys included former U.S. Attorney Peter McCoy and representatives from the law firm Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, a company with offices around the world.

Scott Schutte, an attorney for Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, called claims that people were harmed by the smells “intentionally vague”.

People living within 20 miles of the plant did not prove their injuries, he said during the hearing before U.S. District Judge Sherri Lydon. This echoed legal documents filed earlier this year that the neighbors “declared no viable claims”. The lack of evidence should justify the dismissal of the case, according to the legal documents.

Lawyers representing area residents against New Indy disputed this, noting that many people were injured and that the smell is one of the biggest issues lawyers have dealt with in the southeastern United States. .

“We are not aware of any such aerial case” in the area, said Chase Brockstedt, a Delaware attorney whose firm has experience dealing with odor issues involving industrial facilities.

Wednesday’s arguments from New Indy lawyers did not go down well with Kerri Bishop, a South Carolina resident who said the plant was making people sick and ruining the quality of life for thousands of residents of the city. suburb of Charlotte.

“I’m just surprised they think it’s not plausible that the pollution could go 20 miles; I’m a bit shocked,” she said after the hearing. She led a citizen effort against New Indy.

But Bishop said she was encouraged by Lydon’s questions during the hearing, saying the judge seemed “interested in hearing the truth”.

Lydon was skeptical of arguments that New Indy’s parent company, a California company, was not potentially responsible for the air pollution.

The New Indy Catawba paper mill is accused in court papers of removing pollution controls that then caused odors in communities across the two Carolinas for more than a year. The issues arose after New Indy Catawba bought the plant in 2018 and switched from making bleached paper to brown board.

Lydon said New Indy’s parent company – New Indy Containerboard – seemed well aware of the changes to the plant that have been blamed for causing overpowering odors. Lawyers representing New Indy Containerboard said the parent company should not be held liable because it did not plan to operate in South Carolina, unlike its subsidiary New Indy Catawba.

“Containerboard ran the business,” Lydon said, noting that she made an array of “daily decisions.”

Lydon did not rule Wednesday, but what she decides has substantial implications for New Indy. If New Indy Containerboard is not included in the case, it could significantly weaken efforts to obtain compensation for residents affected by the pollution.

The parent company, part-owned by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, could be forced to pay millions of dollars — beyond what it already pays lawyers — to compensate residents who say that their lives have been disturbed by the smells of plants.

The neighbors are suing what’s called a class action lawsuit, which could allow a wide range of people to file legal claims if they show the New Indy plant hurt them with its air emissions. The judge has not yet decided to certify the class.

Neighbors say up to 625,000 people could be affected – a claim New Indy calls inaccurate and exaggerated. New Indy Catawba officials said the alleged smells were not evenly distributed around the plant, as neighbors claim. The company released a statement on Wednesday saying it had “made substantial progress in addressing odors” and upgraded the plant.

New Indy has been in the hot seat since early 2021, when neighbors began complaining to state regulators about a stench of rotten eggs that permeated communities on both sides of the border.

While paper mills often produce unpleasant odors, New Indy’s are said to be far more potent than anything produced by Bowater, the mill’s former owner. The smell was thought to come from excessive releases of hydrogen sulfide.

New Indy acquired the old factory from Bowater in 2018 and then changed manufacturing processes. But in doing so, the plant bypassed several key pollution control processes by switching from making bleached paper to brown cardboard, the records show.

New Indy’s problems with neighbors have not only generated lawsuits against the company, but state and federal regulators have also stepped in.

Late last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined the company more than $1 million and ordered the company to fix issues that were contributing to odors. . SC’s Department of Health and Environmental Control is waiting to hear whether a federal court approves the fine or orders harsher penalties before the state agency files its own enforcement case.

Wednesday’s hearing was packed with lawyers on both sides of the issue. They included Schutte and others from the law firm Morgan, Lewis and Bockius representing New Indy.

Based in Philadelphia, Morgan Lewis has attorneys across the United States and in foreign countries. He also has a longstanding client relationship with the Kraft family and was involved in pro bono legal service with the New England Patriots, according to a 2013 Boston Business Journal article. The company’s website shows that its clients comprise about two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies.

Attorneys representing citizens against New Indy include firms associated with State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland; and Reps. Tommy Pope, R-York, and Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston. David Hoyle represented the prestigious Motley Rice firm of Charleston, which has extensive experience in pollution and personal injury cases.

The firm of Baird, Mandalas, Brockstedt, Federico and Cardea of ​​Delaware and Maryland also represents citizens. Baird Mandalas recently won a $205 million groundwater contamination settlement for a Delaware community impacted by pollution from a chicken processing company. The case was also made on smells.

This story was originally published June 1, 2022 5:45 p.m.

Sammy Fretwell has covered the environmental beat for The State since 1995. He writes on a range of issues, including wildlife, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and the coastal development. He has won numerous awards, including Journalist of the Year by the SC Press Association in 2017. Fretwell graduated from the University of South Carolina and grew up in Anderson County. Contact him at 803 771 8537.
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