Two contrasting images of the Pigeon River emerged at a public hearing on a controversial new water pollution permit for Evergreen Packaging, a paper mill in Canton.
The mill needs to renew its state permit to continue drawing roughly 29 million gallons a day from the river, using it in the papermaking process, then dumping it back into the river.
On one side of the divide were mostly raft guides, environmentalists, and Cocke County, Tenn., residents, who insisted the river was filthy and dangerously in need of stricter pollution requirements. They characterized the draft state permit as too weak and demanded a revision.
Meanwhile, the opposing party praised the Pigeon as a success story of past decades, a complete turnaround from its — literally — darker days. This pro-water permit faction, however, focused less on the river than the vast economic impact of the mill in the region and the efforts it has already made to clean up it’s operation.
They stressed that imposing rigid pollution requirements on the mill would be too expensive and could lead to job cuts.
“Everyone knows the advantages and strides that this mill has made over the years and the hundreds of millions of dollars they have invested in environmental issues,” said Haywood County Commissioner Skeeter Curtis. “I ask you, issue the permit. Don’t have restrictions that are not economically affordable to the mill.”
With about 1,400 employees, the mill is a major taxpayer, and supports related business and community organizations.
Mike Clayton, president of Champion Credit Union in Canton, referred to the mill as the “heart and soul” of Canton.
“The ripple effect of the Canton mill pays our mortgages and sends our kids to college,” said Clayton.
Luke Goddard, who serves as a town board member in Newport, Tenn., suspected an economic motive was driving most North Carolinians’ support for the water permit as written.
“What they have done is they’ve sold out the community, and they’ve sold out the river downstream, and they have bought your admiration,” said Goddard. “Sure you think, they’re great people. They’re paying you...What you’ve given us downstream is death, dioxin, chemicals, and you haven’t cleaned any of it up until somebody made you clean it up.”
“It looks a lot to me like money really talking around here,” said Frances Miller of the Cocke County Health Council. “I don’t think money is going to help us all that much once we don’t have any clean water or any clean air. I’d hate to leave that as a legacy to my grandchildren.”
Since 1990, the mill reportedly spent $526 million on an overall environmental overhaul, including about $300 million on the Pigeon River alone. While the river downstream is vastly cleaner now, progress has plateaued in recent years.
“We know the mill has made progress, but we haven’t seen progress in the last ten years,” said Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina. “North Carolina, I have very little faith in you. I’d like you to prove us wrong.”
Most Tennessee speakers said they did not come to the hearing to take jobs away, but to find a common solution that would benefit all who rely on the Pigeon River.
“We’re not here to demand food from your table,” said Raven Carswell. “Only a seat at the table you’ve been feasting at for years. We’re tired of scraps.”
Others pointed to health dangers posed by the Pigeon River because of the mill.
Michelle Cueller said she has contracted a skin irritation known as chemically-induced eczema for life after serving as a raft guide on the Pigeon River for 10 years.
“I can only hope that this is the only health infliction I will face,” said Cueller. “The stinging in your face, eyes burning from the water when you’re getting splashed [are] our facts.”
Joseph Hanks, vice-president of Evergreen Packaging, emphasized that the current owners and leaders of the mill had nothing to do with the “pain of the past.”
“There’s no mill in the world that is more compliant than this mill, so how much is enough?” asked Hanks. “The money is there when the technology is available to reduce the color...At some point, it’s just not fair to keep us from operating just because of the past.”
Stacking the deck
Both sides called in reinforcements while espousing their perspective on the pollution permit. Canton Mayor Pat Smathers called four aldermen from the town to stand behind him as he called for the permit to be granted as written.
“We’re all united in the Town of Canton behind Champion International,” said Smathers, despite the fact that Champion International abandoned the mill in 1997, and the mill is now on its second name change since then.
Smathers asked the other aldermen to speak after him — even though the moderator had not called out their names — then returned to the podium with more remarks, garnering criticism later that night for using up more than his share of time and for going out of turn.
Soon after, a raft guide called up about 20 fellow raft guides to demonstrate how the local economy in eastern Tennessee relies heavily on a healthy Pigeon River.
To that, Haywood County Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick had a quick retort.
“I suppose I could ask everyone impacted by the mill to step in here and they would fill this room,” said Kirkpatrick, adding that the families impacted could fill up the entire gymnasium across the hall.
N.C. Representative Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, pointed out that there has been a vast increase in rafters — from 21,000 in 1995 to 150,000 in 2007 — because of the mill’s expansive cleanup project.
“You’ve got a job because something was done about that river,” said Rapp, raising his voice. “I think you need to pay attention to that.”
Rapp said he agreed there must still be more progress but that the state should also recognize and support the mill’s willingness to use the latest technology to lessen pollution.
Audience members from both sides piped up later as Tennessee resident Peter Morrison blasted Smathers for coming up with his “panoply of alderman.”
“That is not fair,” said Peter Morrison. “They should have come up one at a time, not marching up here like the gangbusters.”
While Morrison spoke, a few attendants yelled out that the many more rafters than aldermen had walked up to the podium, prompting shouts from the other side that Smathers had spoken twice without signing up for two slots.
Morrison sat back down after the moderator told him he was out of order, but not before sneaking in another complaint about having to wait for speakers to walk down the aisle to get to the microphone.
The strangest moment in the night was undoubtedly when Clark Bauer went up to speak. Bauer took off his rafting T-shirt as he announced he was done with the rafting industry and would no longer take anyone to the Pigeon River.
Bauer said the millions spent by the mill on cleaning up the river could never make up for it causing cancer in his family.
“$525 million, where’s my family? I could’ve had more family,” said Bauer, adding that he and many others have received infections from the Pigeon River. Bauer even threatened to pull down his pants to show everyone “the sore on [his] butt.”
The moderator’s only response was, “We don’t want you to do that.”