Miserable Residents of South Carolina Town Fume at Billionaire Robert Kraft
Locals say the New England Patriots owner’s paper mill is spewing noxious gases and making them sick.
Scott Stevens says he doesn’t have a history of nosebleeds. Now he gets them all the time.
“I feel like I have a runny nose. It’s actually blood,” the 43-year-old resident of Fort Mill, South Carolina, told The Daily Beast. The culprit, in Stevens’ mind: the New-Indy paper mill in nearby Catawba, which makes containerboard used for cardboard boxes.
About six months ago the mill significantly ramped up production, likely boosting revenues for its owners, including the billionaire chairman of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft. Residents claim that caused a major spike in airborne pollutants—and that the company is doing little to help.
Stevens is far from alone. Locals have filed a staggering 27,000 complaints with the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control, alleging that noxious gases like hydrogen sulfide are causing migraines, dizziness, vomiting, nosebleeds, and burning eyes. The fumes—which smell like rotten eggs, spoiled cabbage, or feces, depending on whom you ask—have proliferated as far as 30 miles away, an area encompassing more than 1.5 million people.
“We feel like we’re being poisoned and gassed in our homes,” says Karen Reilly, who lives seven miles from the plant, which The Kraft Group co-owns with another firm, Schwarz Partners.
“Please just ask Robert, like, ‘Why would you do this to people?’” says Jerry Wansack, who says he has suffered from severe congestion and burning eyes. “Why? Why? I mean, is it really that much about money?”
Representatives and lawyers for New-Indy did not respond to requests for comment. Schwarz Partners also did not respond. A spokesperson for Robert Kraft simply directed The Daily Beast to the New-Indy Catawba website, which houses a daily emissions report and other public filings.
Nobody is alleging that the company has broken laws. Yet some locals do claim that the firm, and its owners, have downplayed their culpability and made harmful changes to their emissions control systems, like temporarily stopping use of a “steam stripper” that can filter out pollutants. The plant even sought a permit to increase production in April, despite ongoing environmental and health complaints.
“I’ve been a buyer for 16 years in manufacturing, and I’m going to go ahead and say that [it’s] to save money on operational costs,” says Kerri Bishop, a five-year resident of South Carolina who launched a Facebook page critical of New-Indy and Kraft. The 3,400-person group is flooded with messages from locals who blame the mill for a host of ailments.
During a site inspection this spring, the Environmental Protection Agency’s own employees experienced headaches, itchy eyes, and nausea. They found that the plant’s emissions were “presenting an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health.” Some residents have spent thousands of dollars installing air scrubbers in their homes. And at least three class-action lawsuits have been filed against New-Indy since May, each seeking over $5 million in damages.
The activists are up against deep-pocketed opponents. Robert Kraft is worth an estimated $6.9 billion, according to Forbes. Earlier this week Kraft reportedly celebrated his 80th birthday at Michael Rubin’s Hamptons mansion, alongside guests including Adele, Lionel Richie, Gayle King, and Starwood chairman Barry Sternlicht.
Meanwhile, 720 miles away in South Carolina, New-Indy’s lawyers have challenged many of the allegations. In a response to one of the class-action suits, the company said that plaintiffs are attempting to “drum up a false narrative to paint New-Indy as a profit-hungry business with little regard for the environment or citizens’ well-being. They fail to reconcile this contrived theme, however, with their acknowledgement that New-Indy obtained state authorizations and permits for its activities.”
As the dispute plays out in court, residents are losing patience. Two months ago the EPA filed an emergency order telling New-Indy to “immediately begin taking steps to minimize air emissions.” But locals say things are as bad as ever. “I cried a lot this weekend,” says Jerry Wansack. “You’re trapped. You cannot get any help. Nothing.”
The trouble in Catawba started in 2018. On New Year’s Eve, New-Indy paid about $300 million for the mill, which had been operating since 1957, according to court filings. The deal reportedly included a 4 percent cap on the company’s state taxes.
Previously, the plant manufactured bleached paper products used for magazines and catalogs, and residents scarcely complained about strange odors. “Occasionally, I’d say once every couple of months… you could smell whatever those fumes are,” Scott Stevens recalls. Another resident, Jim Stover, says he noticed a foul scent when he moved to the area three years ago, but that recently “it’s been a lot worse.”
Soon after buying the facility, New-Indy overhauled the plant to begin making containerboard, a material used in boxes. The conversion was completed in November of 2020, and by February of this year production had further ramped up. At the same time, court documents claim, New-Indy switched its emissions control processes, bypassing the steam stripper and an incinerator, and instead sending contaminants directly into open-air lagoons. One class-action filing alleges that the move sparked an eight- or nine-fold increase in the amount of pollutants that reached the lagoons. (New-Indy has disputed that allegation.)
Complaints quickly rained down on state agencies. New-Indy distanced itself from the blowback. In an April letter to South Carolina’s director of environmental affairs, Tony Hobson, the company’s vice president of manufacturing, said that New-Indy had hired its own consultant, who did not find compounds in high enough concentrations to cause foul odors. The consultant said the bad smells might be attributable to a fire or sewage.
State and federal authorities found otherwise. The EPA issued its emergency order the next month, and in July the agency and the Department of Justice filed to extend the order into the fall. An EPA website says that recent air studies conducted by New-Indy show declining concentrations of hydrogen sulfide. Yet frustrated residents protest that officials have told them that the situation is resolved, even as health symptoms have persisted or worsened.
“If New Indy is unable to stop the release of hydrogen sulfide into the community, [regulators] should close the plant until the situation comes under control,” says State Sen. Michael Johnson, who represents the area.
The slow progress is causing some residents to lose hope, casting a pall over a region just 30 minutes south of Charlotte, one of America’s hottest housing markets. “My husband and I decided yesterday we need to move,” says Karen Reilly, who has lived in Fort Mill for 12 years. “We just need to put our house up for sale and get out of here.”
Kraft, for his part, has recently done some moving too. In May he reportedly paid $43 million for a new mansion in Southampton, New York. According to The Wall Street Journal, his new neighbors include the billionaires Henry Kravis, Ken Griffin, and Leon Black.