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PactivEvergreen – Quietly Polluting Groundwater in Red Bluff

Our neighbors? Not so much. Photo – PactivEvergreen’s LinkedIn page

I got a tip Monday afternoon, March 11, that there was to be a meeting about groundwater at the Red Bluff Community Center at 6 p.m. that evening. What? I couldn’t find a listing for it anywhere. I called Tehama Groundwater Sustainability Agency Executive Director Justin Jenson and he had not heard about it either.

I almost didn’t believe it was really happening, but I contacted people I thought might be able to run over at 6 p.m. to see. Supervisor Candy Carlson was able to make it on very short notice. Lo and behold, the meeting was about PFAs contaminating the wells at the Friendly Acres Mobile Home Park on Highway 99 west. Apparently, only members of the MHP and their neighbors, non-profit North Valley Services, were invited.

Friendly Acres Mobile Home Park. Photo – Loopnet.com

Screenshot of North Valley Services

PFAs (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are man-made chemicals that are easily ingested and take a bazillion years to break down. They are everywhere; in our food, clothing, cookware, packaging, cosmetics, and sometimes our water. PFAs have been linked to a wide variety of health issues – including kidney and testicular cancer, hormone disruption, liver and thyroid problems, interference with vaccine effectiveness, reproductive harm, and abnormal fetal development. They build up in our bodies (and in fish and other wildlife) over time and just hang out, waiting for their buddies to join them to wreak a little havoc.

So why do Friendly Acres and NVS have PFAs in their groundwater? Google Maps showed me exactly where the park is located. Guess what’s right across Highway 99 west and the RR tracks at the end of Diamond Ave.?

PactivEvergreen, manufacturer of packaging items, almost all of which contain PFAs.

On the other side of PactivEvergreen is the Sacramento River, just upstream from the Diversion Dam where the Tehama-Colusa Canal ties in. Red Bank Creek, which also flows into the Sac, runs alongside PE.

Screenshot from Google Maps

I found the latest well sample report for FAMHP on the interwebs, and some of their PFAs are elevated to unsafe levels. The PFHxA is 50 times the Reporting Level. Yikes.

Last week, I wrote in my Red Bluff Daily News weekly column about this, alleging a connection between PactivEvergreen and the contamination of the wells nearby because of how close they are to each other. A couple of readers scolded me for making that allegation, because I had no proof. Now I do. Sometimes the obvious answer is the correct one.

A Good Samaritan emailed me well sample reports from PE and a link to maps that show where well testing has been done by the state and includes those results. Here’s the link.

Pactiv is not on the Red Bluff City Sewer System, meaning they are leaching PFAs from their wastewater pond, which in turn distributes PFAs into the ground (water), the river, and possibly the Tehama-Colusa Canal, which is used to irrigate crops. Not to mention anyone else who lives out there. Testing needs to be done all over that area. And not just the wells, which are very shallow because they are so close to the river. The surface water must also be tested, meaning Red Bank Creek, the Sacramento River, and the T-C Canal.

When I first heard about the meeting at the Community Center March 11, I wondered why the wells at FMAHP (and North Valley Services next door) were even being tested. It turns out that the PFA numbers for PactivEvergreen have been elevated for years. The State Water Boards knew those rascally chemicals would be traveling through the aquifer to other wells, so they started testing across the street.

In other words, people in authority knew about the problem, but it was not made public, like the shark in Jaws. We don’t want everybody to panic! Then, last month, four out of thousands of PFAs were placed on a Notification and Response Level list by the California Division of Drinking Water. The levels of two of the four exceed the Notification Level at all three Red Bluff sites and one exceeds the Response Level. Higher concentrations at Pactiv, of course. There are other PFAs that far exceed the reporting levels in the samples, but only the four on the N&R Level list actually require action be taken. Without the new regs, we still wouldn’t know that the innocent people at FAMHP and NVS are being slowly poisoned. How long would that have gone on?

A little clarification. Notification Level is an advisory level. The state needs to tell the affected parties that their water is contaminated. Response Level is the level at which the Division of Drinking Water recommends removal of a drinking water source from service. When a confirmed detection exceeds the response level, a community water system or a nontransient noncommunity public water system is required to:

– Report that detection in the water system’s annual consumer confidence report.

– Take a water source where detected levels exceed the response level out of use or provide public notification (as specified in Health and Safety §116378) within 30 days of the confirmed detection

Read more about PFAs here.

PactivEvergreen Red Bluff – Photo courtesy harbertroofing.com

I spoke with Tehama County’s Director of Environmental Health, Tia Branton, and she is rightly concerned over the spread of PFAs. Because the state has not had any hard and fast rules in place, there was nothing to be done about the situation at PactivEvergreen. She understands the danger of seepage into the river, but the state is in the driver’s seat here. They are going to do random water sampling, but that takes time and money and we have none of either to spare on the local level.

The Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority should be testing, too. Unless they want to be delivering potentially contaminated water to unknowing farmers where it will be used to irrigate our food. It’s expensive to test for PFAs, but better than poisoning people, right? RIGHT?

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed regulations concerning PFAs and has created a roadmap to eventual curtailment of PFAs in the US. As more is learned about how these “forever” chemicals affect us and our environment, more regulations will be enacted.

During our conversation, Branton made a great point and it may be why there appears to be no sense of urgency about this. The effects of ingesting PFAs are not immediate. You don’t get sick or vomit. They build up in your system over time and can cause a number of serious illnesses. So even if you’re only getting a tiny bit from your water, food, cookware, fire-fighting foam, water-proof textiles, cosmetics, etc…you might not see effects for years.

I still have a million questions about PFAs and PactivEvergreen’s obligation to the people they are harming. They provide around 100 jobs in our community and should be willing to take responsibility voluntarily. There are steps they can take to filter PFAs out of their wastewater. Activated carbon filters have been shown to filter out over 70% of PFAs. Could they be installed between the plant and the wastewater pond?

I phoned the Red Bluff facility but have been unable to reach a human being. I Googled the company and found that it’s a lot bigger than expected. PactivEvergreen operates 53 manufacturing plants, 26 warehouses, and 8 distribution centers in the United States and employs 16,500 people. It is part of Reynolds Group Holdings and Rank Group Ltd, a megacorp owned by billionaire Graeme Hart, the richest person in New Zealand. Yes, New Zealand.

Graeme Hart with his granddaughter Jemima Hawkesby, who introduced him as he was inducted into the NZ Business Hall of Fame. Jemima? Really? Photo courtesy rnz.co.nz

Reynolds Group Holdings was once Reynolds Metals, maker of Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil. It was founded in 1919 by Richard Reynolds Sr., nephew of RJ Reynolds of tobacco infamy.

Alcoa bought Reynolds Metals in 2000 and in 2008 sold it to Rank Group Ltd. Graeme Hart merged it with his other packaging companies and created Reynolds Group Holdings. Hart is a leveraged buyout private equity investor, buying underperforming and undervalued companies, reorganizing or consolidating them with other companies and making them profitable. Not bad for a guy who dropped out of high school at 16.

PactivEvergreen is just one company within Reynolds Group Holdings, which in turn is just one of Hart’s many business interests. The chances of me getting him on the phone to discuss the Red Bluff situation are slim to none.

Red Bluff is not the only site PactivEvergreen has polluted. One facility, in Canton, North Carolina, has collected a litany of contamination violations. It closed in 2023 after polluting the Pigeon River and the groundwater of Canton for over 100 years. However, 1,100 people in Canton were employed there and it was the economic lifeblood of the town. So the folks who survived are sad that it closed. I am not making this up.

Pactiv Evergreen’s Canton, NC facility. Photo courtesy ncnewsline.com

One wonders how many other PE sites are poisoning their neighbors? Places where there are no regulations or testing isn’t done. Industries cannot be excused for harming people and the environment just because they provide economic benefits to a town or region. “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” Or, as Spiderman’s Uncle Ben told him, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

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If you appreciate Liz Merry’s investigative reporting, please consider a contribution to A News Cafe. Thank you.

Liz Merry

Liz Merry was born in Brooklyn, raised in the Bronx, then transplanted to the Jersey Shore. She moved to Chico in 1984 and married her comedy partner, Aaron Standish, in 1990. They have lived in Manton since 1994.

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