Mix a strong environmental ethos, economic realism and strong community pride all together in the same brain (mine, in this case), and in almost any environmental controversy or issue, there’s an outcome that fits nicely into my world view.
Logging in national forests? It’s fine, but do away with large clearcuts and don’t make taxpayers subsidize road building. Coal-fired power plant air pollution? Despite the threat of higher electricity rates, make them install the most up-to-date pollution controls on every coal-fired plant in the country. Buffers on mountain streams? Laws should be stringently enforced and fines for violators should be large. I could go on and on.
When it comes to Evergreen Packaging (the Canton paper mill owner) and its wastewater discharges into the Pigeon River, however, it’s far more complicated.
And now, as the EPA says the state is being too lenient on the mill and threatens to take over the permitting process for its wastewater discharges, I’m more than a little worried about the future of this huge east Haywood plant and the smaller packaging facility in Waynesville.
In the name of full disclosure, however, readers should know a few things. First, I’ve had informal ties to what was formerly Champion International for more than two decades. When I was editor of the paper in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, I was friends with management and rank and file employees. My daughter’s babysitter was the wife of a Champion engineer. I broke bread and tossed back beers with those workers.
As a journalist in Western North Carolina since 1992, I’ve watched as Champion morphed into Blue Ridge Paper Products and then was purchased by Evergreen. Here in the mountains I’ve known dozens of employees, guys I’ve played basketball with, people whose children I’ve coached in soccer, and people I’ve gotten to know because of their involvement in civic groups or who have been elected officials in the region.
Finally, Evergreen just recently became a major sponsor of Folkmoot USA, an international dance festival I’ve been involved with as a volunteer for the past decade. The company didn’t give a huge amount of money, but it did make a commitment that will help Folkmoot quite a bit. Over the last 100 years I would dare say that the owners of the Canton mill have made it the most philanthropic private company in the region.
So there you go.
But wait, if I’m going to be completely honest about how Evergreen affects me, there’s more. The businesses I own, including Smoky Mountain News, will have a better profit and loss statement this year if Evergreen remains viable, keeps providing jobs for 1,400 people, keeps pumping money into the economy, and keeps helping the businesses that purchase advertising from us. I’d venture to say that the list of businesses in Haywood County and the region who could make similar statements is very, very long.
I have a feeling that the disclosures mentioned above don’t really set me apart from most of my acquaintances in Haywood County and this part of the state. The truth is that almost everyone who lives here, and especially those active in community and civic affairs, are in the same position. The paper mill’s employees are our friends who help form the backbone of this place we call home. In addition, the $70 million annual payroll and its $58,000 per year average wage have a profound impact.
I’ll tell you another reason I want Evergreen to emerge from this permitting process still profitable. Call it nostalgia, but there’s a place deep in my soul for people and companies that make something tangible. This feeling led me as a young college graduate to spend nearly 10 years on building sites as a carpenter. These days, we are outsourcing everything. What was once an idealistic disdain for polluting factories has turned into a deep respect for American companies that are able to pay people a good wage while making a profit by building or making things, whether it’s tires, cars, electronics or paper.
We all want the color of the Pigeon River as clear as the water in the Nantahala and Tuckasegee rivers. Absolutely, no doubt about it. It hurts every time I go by that river and see its tea-brown color. Those downriver who don’t benefit from Evergreen have valid arguments about lowered property values. Yes, it’s a huge mill on a little river that would never get a permit today.
Here’s the bottom line: I expect state and federal regulators to demand as much improvement from the mill as is possible without forcing it out of business. I’m no scientist, so in this instance I have to rely on those who know about these things.
But here’s what I do know: I don’t want those friends of mine jobless. I don’t want the town of Canton bankrupt or Haywood County to suffer the loss of its largest taxpayer, negatively affecting schools, law enforcement, health services, the community college and much more.
This is the real world, the place we live in every day. I’m an environmentalist and want Evergreen held to the strictest standards it can meet while remaining open and continuing to be an integral part of this community.