Evergreen has earmarked $1 million to start the engineering process, signaling a commitment to keep the paper mill — and the 1,100 jobs it provides — in Western North Carolina. To meet new air standards, the mill is switching from coal to natural gas. The staggering cost includes upgrades of the natural gas line running from Asheville, which doesn’t currently have enough capacity.
But the company won’t be paying for those upgrades alone. Word came last week that a $2.1 million grant came through from the North Carolina Department of Commerce to help with the gas line upgrade. Haywood County applied for the utility grant on Evergreen’s behalf, and will kick in the $700,000 match required to unlock those state funds.
“We’ve done our part here in the county,” said Mark Swanger, chairman of Haywood’s board of commissioners.
The grant tipped the scales for Evergreen to begin engineering work.
“I think that this gives Evergreen the confidence that we can move the project forward,” said Michael Ferguson, manager of manufacturing excellence for Evergreen. “It’s still a $50 million project. It’s still a very large investment, but the county as well as the state has stepped up. I think that’s a positive thing.”
Evergreen is hoping for more help from the state, however. Evergreen is requesting $12 million in additional grant money to proceed with the project, which will likely take another three years or so to complete.
“That’s not a done deal at all, but we are asking to get that,” Ferguson said.
The legislature isn’t likely to shell out $12 million, however, according to Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin. But he supports the company’s request for taxpayer help to complete the upgrades and will do what he can.
“Ask Evergreen how much taxes they pay every year,” he said. “Corporate income tax, income tax, how much they pay to the community. Take a quarter of a billion dollars out of the community and see what happens.”
Evergreen is indeed a significant player in Western North Carolina’s economy. The mill employs 1,100 people who make an average of $78,300 in salary and benefits. The company is the largest manufacturer west of Charlotte. Every year, they turn out 550,000 tons of paper, primarily carton board.
But all that paper requires a lot of energy to make, and all energy generation has environmental consequences. Evergreen has seven industrial boilers, and five burn coal. Compared to most other fuels, coal has higher emissions for many of the toxic pollutants the EPA set out to address in its 2012 boiler regulations.
To meet the new emissions standard, Evergreen will replace two of its coal burners with natural gas burners and modify two more to run on natural gas. Natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel, so converting would allow Evergreen to meet the new standards.
The project goes beyond converting its own boilers, however. Evergreen faces a natural gas supply problem. The existing natural gas lines can’t transport the volume of natural gas the mill needs, so the lines must be upgraded as part of the project.
That’s good news to government leaders in Haywood County because improved natural gas availability could lure other businesses into the county.
“It will make us more competitive for other potential startups, because natural gas is such a valuable commodity,” Swanger said. “Economic development also means retaining the businesses you already have, and if you’re looking at over 1,000 jobs that are good-paying jobs with good benefits, to not have that in Haywood County would be an economic calamity.”
But upgrading a gas line is a lot of work, and Evergreen is under the gun to get it done before the 2019 federal compliance deadline for the new air regulations.
Evergreen is looking ahead and hoping to get an extension should the work not be done in time. U.S. Congressman Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers, is trying to get the EPA to extend its deadline.
“What we want is a partnership with the federal government,” Davis said.
Regardless of that outcome, completing the upgrades will be a long process, and one that includes plenty of uncertainty.