YORK COUNTY, S.C. — Thousands of residents in both North and South Carolina have been complaining for months about a foul smell near the state border between Union County and York County.
Now, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control is asking neighbors to fill out an odor form online to help find the source.
Officials use the time and place included in the reports in combination with local wind speed and wind direction data to recreate the path the air traveled in. Combined with local weather assessments, they can identify potential sources for the odor along those paths.
Officials told neighbors that much of the air where the strong and mysterious odor has been reported had previously passed over or near the New Indy Container Board plant in Catawba, South Carolina, though the plant says it is not to blame.
“I’m getting anywhere from 10 to 15 phone calls, texts, emails a day asking me about this odor and what we’re doing about it,” said South Carolina State Sen. Michael Johnson.
He and two other local lawmakers took the concerns to DHEC earlier this year. The plant recently made a change in the product it creates.
“They’ve switched over from making what you would call bleached paper, white paper, to basically making brown paper for cardboard purposes,” said Sen. Johnson.
The New Indy plant is more than 15 miles away from parts of Union County where residents are reporting the odor, so DHEC isn’t completely sure it’s coming from South Carolina into the surrounding counties but have ruled out several causes and will continue to investigate.
The department said it has gotten over 13,000 reports since March 12, although the smell started in January.
Once the actual cause of the smell is determined, the agency will begin the process of correcting the problem.
On Wednesday, the EPA sent Channel 9 the following statement saying they have began investigating the cause of the odors:
At the request of the SC DHEC, EPA immediately engaged in a multistate team with SC DHEC, NC DEQ, and MCAQ to investigate the cause of the odors. To assist with informing the multistate team, EPA assembled a technical team with expertise in air, water and waste from across the Agency to analyze modeling data and screen potential sources of sulfur compounds in the area. Data and information gathered, to date, indicate a potential cause of the odor is hydrogen sulfide. On April 24, the multistate team deployed a mobile air monitoring vehicle, called a Geospatial Measurement of Air Pollution (GMAP) mobile laboratory, to Catawba, South Carolina, to assess hydrogen sulfide levels around industrial facilities and the surrounding communities. This tool allows the agency to determine the source of the H2S (one of the potential odor causing compounds) quantifying its concentration in ambient air.
EPA will continue to coordinate with SC DHEC, NC DEQ, and MCAQ as we verify information and data which will establish the sources of the odors and identify options for addressing the situation. It is also important to hear from residents on what is being experienced on the ground. SC DHEC has established a website for anyone who may be experiencing impacts with updates on the investigation which includes a citizen’s portal providing a space for residents to document specific parameters and impacts here. To date, over 10,000 odor reports have been received. If you are experiencing significant or acute reactions, please contact your personal health care provider.
“We’ve been smelling it for over a month, it’s gotten progressively worse over the last few weeks,” said Union County resident Orly Boyle.
She described the smell as rotten eggs or leaked sewage.
“It’s kind of like a sulfur, I don’t know it’s gross,” Lancaster County resident Rachael Kanetzke said.
Kanetzke said she’s concerned about the odor possibly posing a risk to her family’s health.
“We try to live a pretty non-toxic life style so that’s the one thing that comes to my mind, what are we breathing in constantly? That my kids are breathing in? What is it going to cause later on? And we don’t even know,” she said.
Lonnie Fellers of Indian Land told Channel 9 that the smell resurfaced recently and he believes the paper plant is involved somehow.
“I’ve lived here and over the years we smelled it, then its like it disappeared,” he said.
DHEC is still looking at the plant to see if it is the culprit. New Indy says it is not. In its most recent report, representatives for New Indy concluded that any chemical concentration in the air at the plant did not create any significant odor. Additionally, at offsite locations, researchers did not detect any mill-like odors. Instead, they found sewage-related odors and odors from a fire.
In a statement, DHEC said they’re working with North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality to investigate wastewater treatment plants in North Carolina to figure out if they could also be contributing to the smell.
They said weather could also play a role, becoming stagnant and trapping the pollution.
“Right now we don’t know what’s in the air that we’re smelling,” said Boyle.
As officials try to figure out what’s wrong, residents like Boyle are doing their best to keep the smell out by not opening their windows.
DHEC has advised residents who have symptoms that continue even after they are removed from the odor, or those who have concerns about their health should see their primary health care provider.