A federal judge has granted class-action status in a lawsuit against the North Carolina paper mill that has polluted Cocke County’s Pigeon River for 100 years. Cocke County juries and state courts have rendered million-dollar judgments in the past to a specific category of property owners, but now U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer, in Greeneville, has put the issue squarely into a federal court with a ruling entered Friday and released this week. The last time the case was in a federal court it ended in a hung jury and a settlement.
The state judgments or settlements, though ranging from $2 to $6 million at a time, have been treated as a cost of doing business by the paper mill, which is now owned by a New Zealand company. But a class action in federal court could make the cost of continuing the pollution of the river too high, either leading to new technology to clean it up or the closing of the mill. The argument over the years is that the mill is too large and the river is too small to disperse the brown effluent that results from the paper process.
Knoxville trial lawyer Gordon Ball, who grew up next to the Pigeon River in Cocke County and has been suing various owners of the paper mill since 1989, has won several judgments, and has continued to sue at every legal opportunity.
The Environmental Protection Agency has been granting the various owners of the paper mill a variance allowing the pollution to continue.