The Pigeon River: Dead or Alive

Degradation from the Canton, N.C. paper and pollution mill appears to be back on the rise

Editorial

The Pigeon River, arising in Western North Carolina and flowing into the French Broad and, in turn, the Tennessee, has not been cleaned up and kept that way to the extent East Tennesseans have been hoping.

The Tennessee Clean Water Network and other organizations, including Clean Water Expected in East Tennessee and Clean Water for North Carolina, have been watching with apprehension the process for renewing the wastewater permit that has been issued to Blue Ridge Paper Products, operators of the former Champion International paper mill at Canton, N.C.

On hold since last fall, the permit r enewal is apparently being viewed favorably by the North Carolina Division of Water Quality, which is responsible for monitoring the site, and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation's water quality division, which is charged with protecting the downstream section of the river from pollution. The renewal process is stalled awaiting the findings of a federal Environmental Protection Agency-sponsored Technical Review Workshop, whose report is yet to be made public but is due out any time now.

The environmentalist groups expect a whitewash of the Blue Ridge paper plant's discharges. They recently issued their own report, entitled Still Toxic after All These Years on the state of the Pigeon, a river that winds through gorgeous surroundings but has been discolored and polluted with toxins for nearly 100 years.

These newest environmental organizations have stepped into the breach left open when the Dead Pigeon River Council, a Newport, Tenn.-based group that agitated Champion and its North Carolina protectors for many years, disappeared. It dissolved after Champion finally invested in reducing the level of pollution to the point where it could sell out to Blue Ridge and its plant employee investors in 1999.

In its June, 2007 update, the clean-water consortium reported that neither color nor toxic compound pollution has improved much since '99. Additionally they report that toxic releases from the plant into the river have actually increased in some recent years. They say that the state of North Carolina's wastewater permit writer has called their report â“full of emotion.â” They point out that he has not acknowledged that their data was based on regulatory information that is publicly available, nor that his agency has advocated against stronger regulation of the paper plant's discharges â“for decades.â”

They quote permit writer/engineer, Sergei Chernikov, as commenting: â“There are a number of toxic compounds that have been releasedâ. But would you rather have the mill or shut it down?â”

At stake are hundreds of jobs at the plant and in the Canton community. The plant is Haywood County's leading industry, and public officials and business leaders there have repeatedly praised the company for cleaning up the river, a claim that the environmental groups say is insupportable.

However, the clean-water advocates say in the same breath that â“it has always been our intention to make jobs more sustainable at the Canton mill, through genuine environmental progress, not to eliminate themâ. The myths and stereotyping used by industry, and even by regulators, make such progress even more difficult.â”

The river may run downhill, but keeping it as clean as possible, given the outflow from the paper plant, has been an uphill battle since the plant was erected there in 1910. There are just too many phases of the paper production process that allow toxic or noxious releases into the stream.

As a top Champion official of the plant said in the 1980s, when the pollution issue was finally coming to a head and the company was being stung regularly by reports of increased cancer incidence along its banks in Tennessee, â“Nobody in their right mind would locate a paper plant on that river today.â”

The Pigeon's volume and flow rate are simply too low to bear the paper plant's discharge load and dilute it sufficiently to allow for the river's recreational or water source use downstream unless drastic and expensive measures are taken at the source to eliminate or filter out the offending materials.

The North Carolina permit engineer wants to know whether we want a paper mill at Canton or not. What we want is a clean river. The technology is available to clean it. Whether the mill employs all the technology that is needed to reduce its polluting discharge is up to his state and the EPA.

We're waiting. But we're losing patience. A hundred years of suffering around here from all of that pollution has worn out our neighbors' welcome.

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