Wednesday, April 17, 2024

International Paper, which helped push for Cape Fear ‘swamp’ reclassification, up for new permit

There are two weeks left in the public comment period for the facility's air pollution permit renewal.

International Paper's Riegelwood facility is about 20 miles upstream from Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo / Courtesy Google)
International Paper’s Riegelwood facility is about 20 miles upstream from Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo / Courtesy Google)

REIGELWOOD, N.C. — International Paper is applying to renew the air pollution permit for its Riegelwood facility, including a request to increase emission of carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, particulate matter, and greenhouse gases. Located about 20 miles upriver from Wilmington, the facility will also have its wastewater permit renewed this weekend.

International Paper employees about 650 people at its Columbus County plant, and is one of several locations in North Carolina.

According to International Paper’s request, “the proposed project includes, but is not limited to, adding a new turbine generator. The project is also expected to increase the amount of bark burned in the No. 2 and 5 Power Boilers. The facility is defined as a ‘major stationary source’ for the discharge of significant quantities of VOC [volatile organic compounds], PM, PM10, PM2.5, [particulate matter of varying sizes] SO2 [Sulfure Dioxide], NOx, CO and GHG.”

The comment period for the new air pollution permit runs through December 13, and several potential areas of concern have been raised, including International Paper’s violation history, the potential creation of PFAS – fluorine compounds similar to GenX – and International Paper’s role in the recent attempt to reclassify sections of the Cape Fear as a swamp.

‘Swamp’ request

The request to reclassify significant portions of the lower Cape Fear River date back as far as 1998, but got serious in 2014 when the Lower Cape Fear River Program, a consortium of government officials and companies with wastewater discharge permits, requested the state reclassify 15 miles of river as a swamp.

According to emails handed over as part of a public record request to the DEQ, the engineering firm C2HM was involved in the swamp request on behalf of International Paper; this was confirmed by Klaus Albertin, a former C2HM employee who know works for the DEQ.

As a “swamp,” the downstream section of the Cape Fear River would have looser requirements for dissolved oxygen – an aspect of water quality impacted negatively by the Riegelwood facility. According to DEQ documents, International Paper discharges into an area considered a swamp, but is subject to monitoring based on the impact downstream.

The DEQ received numerous emails in protest, and Wilmington’s city council issued a resolution opposing the move; finally, over the summer, the EPA effectively killed the request in a letter to the DEQ — but did not rule out future modifications.

Asked if DEQ was aware or concerned about International Paper’s role in the reclassification request, spokesperson Jill Lucas said, “that process was started under a previous administration – DEQ supports the EPA’s decision to deny that request.”

Violation history

According to Adam Ghassemi, staff communication manager for International Paper, “The mill received one notice after we self-reported following proactive equipment testing. We reported those results to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Retesting confirmed our equipment actually meets or exceeds quality standards.”

But according to information provided by Zaynab Nasif, public records officer for DEQ, International Paper has been notified of several wastewater violations over the last thirty years; these violations, tied to the company’s NPDES permit, include a $729,000 fine (later reduced by $100,000) that was paid in 1984, and notices of violation in 2003 and 2005 for mercury levels and aquatic toxicity, respectively.

The data provided by Nasif contains a total of 318 violations, many are the report of misreporting or database errors, as well as 90 were the permit was unclear, incomplete, or later adjudicated.

In addition, 61 violations were noted “No action, BPJ” – meaning a violation occured, but DEQ did not issue a notice citing “best professional judgment.”

From the EPA's facility report on International Paper's Riegelwood facility. (Port City Daily photo / EPA)
From the EPA’s facility report on International Paper’s Riegelwood facility. (Port City Daily photo / EPA)

According to EPA records, the facility was also issued a “high priority violation” in 2017, for which the state fined International Paper $4,508.


According to a recent study published by the Environmental Defense Fund, paper and textile mills may be an unexpected but significant source of polyfluorinated chemicals.

In particular, the study looked at textile mills that used PFAS to make oil-repellant paper packing, used for pizza boxes, fast-food bags, and other food uses. And, while the companies were not required to list PFAS on their discharge permits, they did have to notify the FDA.

Based on that, the study examined nearly 1,000 documents as part of a Freedom of Information Act request to the FDA.

“One challenge to effectively evaluating the potential impacts of PFASs as well as cleaning up priority sites is that there is very little information on where these chemicals are being used. Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to FDA, EDF obtained documents previously not made public that show that paper mills using PFASs may be a significant source of contamination to water and potentially to air and compost,” the study states.

One of the companies identified by the study was Chemours, along with Daikin America, but it’s not known how many other facilities are producing, and likely dumping, PFAS.

“We do not know the location of the paper mills using any of the FDA-approved PFASs. Through an EPA permit database, we identified 269 pulp and paper mills that discharge directly to a river; 42 discharged more than 26 million gallons per day of wastewater described by the “typical” mill in Chemours’ and Daikin America’s environmental assessment,” according to the study.

One of those sites is International Paper’s Riegelwood plant, but the company denies it uses any PFAS.

“Our Riegelwood, North Carolina, mill produces fluff and softwood pulp that is converted into products people depend on every day like diapers, feminine hygiene and adult incontinence products. We do not produce or release PFAS chemicals,” Ghassemi said.

DEQ did not directly comment on whether it had concerns about Riegelwood or other paper mills in the state.

“DEQ is concerned about all emerging contaminants, and we’ll enforce regulations wherever they apply,” Lucas said.

DEQ spokeswoman Bridget Munger confirmed that both CFPUA and the Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority have their water intakes upstream from International Paper and that, to DEQ’s knowledge, there are no utility intakes downstream from the plant.

Public Comment

The public comment for International Paper’s air permit runs through Thursday, Dec. 13. More information is available here.

Public hearings on the permit are not currently planned. However, according to the DEQ, “A public hearing may be held if the Director of the DAQ [Division of Air Quality] determines that significant public interest exists or that the public interest will be served.”

Comments and requests for a public hearing are only accepted by mail:

Written comments or requests for a public hearing should be postmarked no later than December 13, 2018, and addressed to Brian Bland, Division of Air Quality, 1641 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, North Carolina 27699-1641. All comments received or postmarked by this date will be considered in the final determination regarding the Air Quality Permit.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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