Cocke County Battles for Less Pollution from North Carolina Paper Mill

"When they first started dumping poisons in this river, we had Civil War veterans living along the shore," Lee Willis of the Cocke County Water Advisory Council told a crowd of 500 at Cocke County High School on Jan. 25. "We have lived with fear and anxiety for 100 years."

The pulp and paper mill in Canton, N.C., began operation in 1908, and its water pollution permit is up for renewal. The North Carolina Division of Water Quality took the unusual step of holding a public hearing in Tennessee regarding the draft permit, and the message they heard was unanimous, except for a paid spokesman for the mill: Tennesseans want stricter limits on the mill's effluent.

"We are at a historic moment in our struggle to reclaim our river," Cocke County Mayor Iliff McMahan said as he described his experience in 1972 as an intern in Washington, D.C., for Sen. Howard Baker. That year, Baker and Maine Sen. Edwin Muskie created the Clean Water Act; McMahan said Baker described that law as "the highlight of his career" during the 2008 dedication ceremony for the Baker Center on the University of Tennessee campus.

As the energetic mayor ran through the roster of politicians on the stage and in the crowd, the hearing felt more like an awards ceremony. Several politicians sent representatives to the meeting, but state legislators Steve Southerland and Eddie Yoakley and Congressman Phil Roe attended in person, along with numerous county officials.

Why such an assemblage for an out-of-state permit hearing? Because the draft permit actually raises the mill's daily discharge of color pollution.

"The permit offered by North Carolina is not acceptable," said Sen. Southerland, who played a role in getting the mill to improve its monitoring regime and in convincing North Carolina to include Tennessee citizens in permit hearings. Meanwhile, Rep. Yoakley reminded North Carolina officials that their attorney general recently sued TVA over air pollution drifting across the border, and called for stricter limits.

"The Pigeon River does not exist for the exclusive use of one facility. I strongly urge North Carolina to strengthen this permit," said Rep. Roe, who stayed the full four hours and closed the night with a question on many people's minds: "Why 39,000 pounds a day?"

That is the proposed daily discharge of color pollution in the draft permit, dropping to 37,000 pounds a day in the final year of the five-year permit cycle. The mill has averaged 37,000 pounds a day of color discharges for the past three years. The initial limit in the previous permit was 42,000 pounds a day, dropping to 39,000 in 2006, when the permit expired. It has been administratively continued since then as officials study what further improvements the mill can make to its pulping processes. Color pollution is composed of natural materials left behind when fibers are extracted from wood.

Before Champion International began modernization efforts in 1990, the mill dumped 10 times as much color pollution in the river, which ran black and foamy with a foul odor, even in Cocke County, 50 river miles below the mill. Now visible pollution is reduced and rafting business has increased six-fold. Paddlers still find "eddy biscuits," mounds of foam that collect where the current stalls, and on bad days the river has a slight odor. According to a 1997 agreement with the EPA, water at the state line can run no darker than 50 color units. The average in recent years has been 17 units.

In addition to color pollution, the mill dumps 55 tons of toxins into the river each year, including metals, ammonia, formaldehyde, methanol, and more. Some of the worst toxins were eliminated during modernization efforts, and all fish advisories for the river have been lifted. The intent of the Clean Water Act was to reduce pollution with each permit cycle, but many allowances in the draft permit are at or near current levels. One pollutant, absorbable organic halides, would be increased if the draft permit is adopted.

Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina believes this is a clue as to why the draft permit allows more color pollution than the mill currently produces. "They plan to increase production," Taylor says.

Blue Ridge Paper Products, which does business as Evergreen Packaging, bought the mill from Champion in 1998 and was in turn bought by international investment firm The Rank Group in 2007.

Mill officials say further improvements to their processes are cost-prohibitive or only marginally effective. General Manager Dane Griswold, speaking at a Jan. 26 hearing in Haywood County, N.C., said other mills tried techniques identified in a 2001 study and have gotten poor results.

"If there was a simple, economic way to make things better, we'd do it," mill spokesman Mike Cohen says. The fact sheet written for the hearings cites a 2006 study of 76 similar mills, which concluded "the Canton mill's environmental performance is among the best in the world." Taylor acknowledges that the mill has achieved one of the highest levels of percent removal of certain pollutants per ton of production, but says the fact sheet is "industrial advocacy."

"When production is in the thousands of tons daily and being allowed to increase, there is no credible way to describe this as a clean mill," Taylor says.

The existing permit includes variances—exemptions from legal limits—for color and temperature. The mill is allowed to heat the river to a monthly average of 90 degrees in summer and 77 in winter. An accidental release of black liquor (a pulping by-product) from the mill in 2007 killed 8,000 fish, but because the permit specifies monthly temperature averages, the event was not deemed a violation. Hartwell Carson of the Western North Carolina Alliance says the river exceeded 100 degrees due to the spill.

"It's what happens during those daily variations that kills aquatic life," he says. At the meeting, he called for daily limits on temperature and color in the new permit. Isaac Stahl of CWFNC objected to the mill using drought conditions as an excuse for high color readings in recent years: "Droughts are regular, not exceptional. You need to prepare for them. Ecosystems are more vulnerable during drought."

In Haywood County's meeting, many citizens supported the draft permit. The mayors of Canton and Clyde, Haywood County Commissioners, leaders of the Chamber of Commerce and United Way, and members of educational foundations all praised mill owners and employees for their support of the community. Jennifer Best, a Haywood County realtor, said the mill has insulated her region from the recession. The president of Champion Credit Union touted the mill's $70 million annual payroll.

Carl Powell produces wood chips for the mill. He has 28 employees and buys logs from 60 crews. The mill and Powell's company are "committed to sustainable forestry in the Blue Ridge mountains," he says. All their wood is grown within 300 miles and is certified as sustainably harvested.

The hearings had contentious moments, but "We don't want anyone to lose their job, we just want a clean river" was a common refrain from Tennesseans. Michelle Cuellar, co-owner of the Bean Trees Cafe in Hartford, said, "Applying the appropriate technology creates jobs." Cuellar added that she has a "chronic, chemically induced rash" from her years as a raft guide.

The Cocke County Clerk added up fees collected from rafting businesses and reported a total (since they started collecting them) of $2,440,000. In Haywood County, two dozen raft guides stood behind the podium in solidarity as fellow guide Aaron Lawless spoke about the need to make the river cleaner. "Clean water does not mean loss of jobs," said another guide, Chris Carswell. "Clean water improves the economy."

Members of Clean Water Expected in East Tennessee attended both hearings; Amelia Taylor described the group as "mostly young people who have joined a 30-year battle to end 101 years of pollution." She said she thinks North Carolina should call its environmental agency "the Department of Protection for Industry that Pollutes the Environment and Natural Resources," but she begged them, "Please prove me wrong."

Evergreen Packaging General Counsel Joseph Hanks addressed visiting Tennesseans at the Haywood County meeting. "I understand the pain of the past. Cocke County suffered disproportionately," Hanks said. "What we want is very similar, but we seem to be in different centuries."

Seth Smith of CWEET said he was reading old newspapers in the library and found an article from 1912 with a quote from the mill owner saying they were doing all they could to clean up the river.