It’s a sunny Friday morning on the Pigeon River when the bucket brigade assembles, five-gallon containers in hand. The stock truck has just arrived, making its way up windy U.S. 276 and down the equally squirrely N.C. 215, tanks loaded with fish and water.
A pair of fish culturists from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission stands atop the truck as a line of bucket-bearers forms leading up to it, and the work begins. Each bucket received a splash of water and a dollop of flipping, fighting trout — rainbow, brown and brook all mixed together in one writhing mass.
The clear water of the West Fork Pigeon River tumbling from its mountain headwaters takes on a yellowish hue through the plastic of the snorkel mask, revealing a riverbed of rounded rocks that sometimes sit within inches of the surface and sometimes plunge feet below.
Fish swim placidly in the flow, darting only occasionally when the wearer of the snorkel mask draws a bit too close for comfort. Here and there a leaf or a stick streams by like a stowaway for parts unknown.
On the chilly, windy afternoon of April 7, a crew of seven people gathered to install a passel of hefty red maple and river birch saplings into their new home, River’s Edge Park in Clyde. With the help of shovels and a mini-dozer it took just 2 hours to plant the 13 trees, but the work is far from over. Using mostly grant funds and volunteer labor, the town of Clyde intends to eventually plant the riverside park with thousands of trees and shrubs.
There’s excitement in the air as the class, its members scattered across the Pigeon River under cloudy skies in Canton, hunches over the water in an enthusiastic search. Slightly encumbered by awkwardly bulging, oversize wader suits, class members turn over rocks, shuffle their feet across the river bottom and generally stir things up to flush any nearby aquatic creatures into their waiting nets.
Haywood Waterways Association has provided this education program year after year for eighth-graders in Haywood County, but on Sept. 24, the class wasn’t composed of over-energetic teenagers.
More than 200 acres of scattered tracts along the meandering Pigeon River Valley in Haywood County are quiet sentries to the not-so-pretty past of Canton’s century-old paper mill.
Mountains of toxin-laced sludge and coal ash are buried in vast industrial dumps on the outskirts of town, hidden relics of the mill’s long papermaking presence here. The old unlined landfills leapfrog along a 2-mile section of the Pigeon River downstream of the mill.
The Canton paper mill has been an economic anchor in Haywood County since 1908, providing livelihoods for tens of thousands of workers over its proud and storied history.
A trust fund backed by Progress Energy that has funneled more than $2 million and counting to water quality projects in Haywood County since the mid-1990s is not in jeopardy following the merger of the utility with Duke Energy.
Evergreen Packaging has reached a partial settlement with environmental groups over pollution from the Canton paper mill in the Pigeon River.
Environmental groups had challenged the mill’s pollution permit, claiming that the standards weren’t tight enough. There were two bones of contention: how warm the river gets and the dark color the river takes on due to the mill’s discharges.
The portion of the suit dealing with temperature fluctuations to the river has been settled. Initially, the mill was permitted to raise the temperature of the river by 15 degrees Fahrenheit with its discharges, as measured at a monitoring point about half a mile downstream.
The limit was based on a monthly average, however, so spikes much higher were acceptable as along as it evened out over the course of a month to stay within the acceptable 15 degrees.
Now, the mill has agreed to an additional temperature criteria based on a weekly average. The river cannot exceed a maximum temperature of 89 degrees in summer or 84 degrees in the winter based on a weekly average, under the terms of the new settlement.
That is largely within the temperature confines the mill adheres to already.
“This agreement largely validates what was already a good permit ... the result of a good process,” Blue Ridge Plant Manager Dane Griswold said in a statement. “Having this issue settled means we can continue to provide jobs for hundreds of Western North Carolina families, continue to meet the needs of our customers and ensure the quality of the Pigeon River continues to improve.”
Hope Taylor, the director of Clean Water for North Carolina, said the temperature standard is still too lax in her book.
“We would have liked to go far enough to have a true mountain cold water stream downstream of the mill,” Taylor said.
But moving the mill toward a weekly average instead of a monthly average is still progress, said Taylor, who has been wrangling with the Canton paper mill over water quality issues for more than a decade.
Taylor said in some instances water in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit has been discharged into the river by the mill. For monitoring purposes, however, the river’s temperature is taken about half a mile downstream of the discharge point, after the hotter water has mixed with the rest of the river.
The lawsuit was filed by Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of several groups: the Western North Carolina Alliance, Clean Water for North Carolina, the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, Cocke County, Tenn., and Clean Water Expected for East Tennessee.
The paper mill sucks roughly 29 million gallons a day out of the river and uses it in a myriad of aspects of the paper making process — from cooling coal-fired boilers to flushing chemicals through wood pulp — and then dumps it back in the river again.
The settlement was reached “without any admission of liability” on Evergreen’s part, the agreement makes a point of noting.
Another area environmental groups contested in the suit is how dark the river’s color should be. Discharges from the mill darken the color of the river. The state considers this purely an aesthetic issue, governed by a subjective standard. Whether the river is too dark is in the eye of the beholder.
The state has wagered that the color of the river is acceptable, and the mill no longer needs regulation on this front. Environmental groups argued the river is still too dark, however.
To resolve the issue, the mill will soon undertake a public perception study. A random panel will be asked to size up the color of the river upstream and downstream of the mill.
The environmental groups have agreed to table their concerns over color pending the outcome of the study. In the meantime, Taylor said her organization is riding herd on the protocols for how the study will be carried out to ensure it is done fairly.
“Blue Ridge Paper is paying for the consultants who are coming in to do this study, so you have to assume they would bias the study,” Taylor said. “There is a way to really manipulate the way the study goes.”
For example, the mill initially proposed taking the panel to view downstream portions of the river first where the water is darker due to the discharges, then to the upstream portions where the water is clear. But the color contrast of the river downstream would likely be more striking if viewed the other way around — seeing the clear stretch first then the darker stretch, Taylor said. So she proposed a different methodology: splitting the panel into two groups in terms of viewing order.
“We said, ‘No, you have to have to have half of them go one way and half go the other way,’” Taylor said.
Taylor also wants to ensure the panel doesn’t have anyone on it who works at the mill, or whose family members work at the mill. She is also scrutinizing the way the questions will be phrased and the spectrum of multiple-choice answers.
Mike Cohen, a spokesperson for the Canton mill, said the issue of color is primarily aesthetic, thus the subjective standard is appropriate.
But Taylor believes there are underlying ecological concerns from the color of the river.
“We see that color as evidence of the chemical soup coming into the river,” Taylor said. Some of those compounds could be toxic, said Taylor, even though the state doesn’t currently classify them as toxic.
Even on the basis of aesthetics, the color is still a black mark against the mill, according to the lawsuit.
“We believe the dark color makes the river less desirable for fishing, rafting and wading than other, less polluted rivers nearby,” said Daniel Boone of Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association in a press statement.
Taylor said the mill should not deprive the public from being able to use and enjoy the river as a resource.
Whether the public is indeed bothered by the river’s color — based on the opinions of the random panel that is selected — will be borne out by the study in coming months, with the results finalized in early 2013.
The parties in the suit will then revisit the issue of color. The mill hopes the study will resolve the concerns and the rest of the suit can be dismissed, according to a statement by the mill.
The environmental standards in the mill’s water pollution permit have already been tightened once compared to what the state initially suggested. The state was sent back to the drawing board once by the Environmental Protection Agency, which intervened in the pollution permit two years ago.
The state had initially recommended looser temperature criteria. The state also deemed the mill had already done enough to improve the color in the river, and that the color discharges were now acceptable and no longer needed regulating through a permit.
But the EPA called for tighter limits, telling the state to tighten up temperature fluctuations. Under the state’s original permit, the mill would have been allowed to raise the river’s temperature by as much as 25 degrees Fahrenheit downstream of the mill based on a monthly average, but the EPA reined it in to only 15 degrees warmer.
The EPA also wasn’t convinced color was no longer an issue. The study to determine whether color was within acceptable levels was a result of the EPA stepping in, Taylor said. The EPA also wanted tougher monitoring requirements on dioxins and fish tissue testing.
The permit was approved by the state two years ago in May 2010. Technically, the permits are up for review every five years.
“It is pretty much a continual process,” said Cohen, the mill spokesperson.
In reality, it is often longer between permits. Before the new one was adopted in 2010, the last one before that dated to 2001. The mill operated under an extension of that 2001 permit for four years while a new one was being worked out.
The river downstream from the mill is far cleaner today than anytime in the mill’s 100-year history. The Pigeon River was once so polluted few fish species could survive and it was unsafe for people to swim in.
During the 1990s, the mill embarked on a $300 million environmental overhaul, spurred partly by expensive class action lawsuits.
The biggest environmental victory of the 1990s was getting the mill to drastically reduced dioxin, the most toxic chemical discharged into the river. The final health advisory against eating fish caught downstream of the mill was lifted in 2005. Fish once wiped out by the mill’s pollution are being reintroduced in a joint effort between the mill and state wildlife and environmental agencies.
But environmentalists and downstream communities want the mill to make further improvements. But instead, it seems progress has plateaued.
Encouraged by the success of experimental stockings during the last three years, biologists with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission are continuing their efforts to restore fish and mussels in the Cheoah and Pigeon rivers.
They are using aquatic species propagated in hatcheries as well as some moved from other streams.
The restoration work reintroduces aquatic animals into waters where they were once found in abundance. So far this year, biologists have placed several thousand fish and mussels in both rivers.
While most of these reintroductions were accomplished by collecting large numbers of relatively common fishes from places where they were abundant and releasing them into the Pigeon, some species were not plentiful enough to make collecting and releasing feasible. In those cases, the commission worked with conservation partners to hatch and raise species to release in these restoration projects.
The releases of wavy-rayed lampmussels in the Pigeon and Cheoah rivers, and rainbow mussels and the spotfin chub, a federally threatened fish, into the Cheoah River in early June, mark the third consecutive year that commission biologists, in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Conservation Fisheries, have propagated and grown out species in order to introduce them.
“The goals of these restoration efforts are to restore native fauna into rivers where they were found historically, and to improve the overall ecological health of the rivers,” said Steve Fraley, the commission’s western aquatic wildlife diversity coordinator.
“We conduct annual surveys to monitor the status of reintroduced species in the Cheoah and Pigeon rivers and have been pleased with the results. We can now claim that three fish species we’ve been working on in the Pigeon have been successfully re-established, and we’ve seen good indications of survival of other reintroduced species there, and also in the Cheoah.”
On the horizon is another restoration project and one that could have bigger implications for the existence of the Appalachian elktoe, a federally endangered freshwater mussel found only in relict populations in the mountain rivers of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.
Since 2009, commission staff, along with N.C. State University and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has worked to perfect successful propagation techniques for Appalachian elktoe, a federal and state-listed endangered freshwater mussel, for eventual release into the Cheoah River to augment a small existing population there.
A recent decision by a North Caroline administrative law judge has denied Evergreen Packaging’s attempt to dismiss the case filed by Cocke County, Tenn., and seven Tennessee and North Carolina based groups against the wastewater permit for its Canton pulp and paper mill.
In addition to challenging the water discharge permit, the Southern Environmental Law Center also filed a challenge to a separate document, the mill’s color “variance.” The variance, say the environmental groups, has allowed the facility to continue to exceed the state’s narrative standard for dark color in the Pigeon River since the 1980s.
The ruling means that the case will now move forward. Clean Water Expected in Tennessee, Clean Water for North Carolina, Cocke County, Tenn., Tennessee Conservation Voters, Tennessee Scenic Rivers, Tennessee Chapter of Sierra Club and the Western North Carolina Alliance are represented by attorneys from the Southern Environmental Law Center in the case filed in July.