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Governor Cooper calls for accountability in Canton

Governor Roy Cooper spoke at Pisgah High School about the Canton paper mill closure.
Lilly Knoepp
Governor Roy Cooper spoke at Pisgah High School about the Canton paper mill closure.

In a visit to Canton today, Governor Roy Cooper voiced his support for holding Pactiv Evergreen accountable after the hasty announcement of closure of the mill last month.

“The heart of Haywood County and Western North Carolina is strong. And it is a lot bigger than one papermill,” Cooper said.

Cooper addressed concerns about the local economy in Canton because of the loss of the papermill.

His office is working with all levels of government to get funding for the region and make sure that Canton’s infrastructure is strong after the mill leaves, he said.

“We know too that something else needs to be done with that property. And we will do what we can to facilitate that,” Cooper said. “I didn’t get a call from this company. I didn’t know they were going. You all didn’t know they were going. They just left. We need to hold them accountable.”

In March, Cooper sent a letter to Pactiv Evergreen CEO Mike King explaining that the company will be asked to repay $12 million of state incentives.

“If you follow through your announced plans, we will demand full repayment of those funds,” Cooper said in the letter.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein and the NC DOJ have also sent a letter to King to “remind Pactiv Evergreen of its legal obligations to the State of North Carolina and to the people who live in and around Canton.”

“We want that money back. We want that money to go to this area to make sure that you recover. And all options are on the table as far as I’m concerned about what we can do. We want the best thing for this community to happen,” Cooper said.

Pactiv responded to his letter but he said he couldn’t provide any further details.

The papermill has operated for more than a century. Beyond the economic loss of jobs in the region, the mill also holds a proponent position in the town. The mill functions as the town’s wastewater treatment plant.

“We know that the vast majority of that wastewater treatment is because of the plant itself,” Cooper said. The Department of Environmental Quality is working with the town and Pactiv Evergreen to discuss what will be needed during this transition.

According to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Pactiv Evergreen currently holds multiple active environmental permits, including air quality, wastewater treatment, and storm water. 

 The facility and the Town of Canton have an agreement that Pactiv-Evergreen is required to continue wastewater operations for two years, according to DEQ. Both are in negotiations with DEQ about how the town’s wastewater will be treated in the future.

The company is required to continue cleanup after the plant ceases operation to obtain incident closure, according to the DEQ.  

“We want to make sure that clean up is done right. This plant has been there for more than a century – a lot of things have gone on there,” Cooper said.

Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers spoke passionately to the crowd at Pisgah High School about the mill closure.
Lilly Knoepp
Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers spoke passionately to the crowd at Pisgah High School about the mill closure.

Tim Watkins, Chief Deputy Secretary at the Department of Environmental Equality, spoke about the clean-up at the event.

“We’re working very closely with the plant to help with the transition to ensure that there is no environmental damage with the closure of the plant through managing the permit process. We also have enlisted help from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to do an environmental evaluation of potential contamination from the plant,” Watkins said.

He expects to receive initial reports based on groundwater sampling to be released by late April.

Mental health is an important component of assistance, Cooper said.

“It’s understandable that people would be depressed and people would be traumatized by such a major life change for a family. We’ve got to make sure that people get help across the board,” he said.

Cooper’s office shared a list of resources for those impacted.

Local Rep. Chuck Edwards has asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate the selling of stock by company executives just before the closure was announced. The SEC hasn’t announced any findings at this time.

Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers said his eyes are on the future of Canton and what the town will look like for the next generation. He recently attended a local Career Day where a student said he wanted to be a mill worker like his dad.

“That is our job. That is our calling,” Smathers said. “To build again this hometown tomorrow that allows him to continue to call this school system, these churches, these ball fields, their friends their home. Never underestimate the power of calling someplace your home.”

The mill is scheduled to close June 9th.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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