Advocates for a cleaner Pigeon River have filed a formal challenge against a state water pollution permit for the Canton paper mill that was renewed this summer. They allege that Evergreen Packaging can well afford to be held to stricter environmental standards.
Though the Environmental Protection Agency took a rare step in demanding stricter standards from the N.C. Division of Water Quality, some say the federal agency did not go far enough.
“We really wish they had pushed the envelope even further,” said Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina. “We felt they had strong grounds to be able to do so.”
The advocates’ objections are many, but their two chief complaints are that the permit doesn’t adequately regulate the temperature and the color of the water discharged from the Canton paper mill into the Pigeon River.
The paper mill draws roughly 29 million gallons a day out of the river and uses it in myriad aspects of the paper making process — from cooling coal-fired boilers to flushing chemicals through wood pulp — before returning it to the river.
“Citizens downstream from the plant are being deprived of high quality recreational experiences as well as a healthy environment to develop their businesses and raise their families,” said Iliff McMahan, Jr., Mayor of Cocke County, Tenn., in a statement.
Mike Cohen, a spokesman for Evergreen, said the company has no public comment about the appeal that was filed.
Sergei Chernikov, the state environmental engineer who was charged with writing the permit, said he, too, could not comment.
Jamie Kritzer, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, confirmed the agency had received the petition last week.
“We haven’t had an opportunity to review the specific comments made in the challenge,” said Kritzer. “Challenges like this are very much a part of the process.”
The mill must renew its water pollution permit every five years. The state imposes tougher limits on the mill every time the permit comes up, and as a result, the Pigeon River has made a dramatic turnaround in water quality.
During the 1990s, the mill embarked on a $300 million environmental overhaul, spurred partly by lawsuits. Fish consumption advisories for every species in the Pigeon have now been lifted due to the major reduction of chemicals. The better water quality gets, the tougher it gets to make additional incremental improvements, however.
As for the next step, a formal hearing akin to a court proceeding will be held by the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings, likely three to four months from now. In the meantime, all parties will be allowed to file more detailed pre-hearing statements, which will include facts that will be used to determine the case. The current permit will remain in effect unless it is overturned.
The Southern Environmental Law Center will argue the appeal on behalf of Clean Water Expected for East Tennessee, Clean Water for North Carolina, Cocke County, Tenn.; the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, Tennessee Conservation Voters, Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association and Western North Carolina Alliance.
The sheer number of groups that have signed on is telling, according to Hartwell Carson, French Broad Riverkeeper for the Western North Carolina Alliance.
“This is a big deal,” said Carson “ You have county government, you have environmental groups, you have rafting folks. It’s a pretty broad spectrum.”
In filing the challenge, the groups cited a 2007 incident in which hot water discharged from the mill killed more than 8,000 fish. That occurrence did not count as a violation of the mill’s permit, which measures compliance based on a monthly average. The spike, while deadly to fish, did not bump the mill to more than the monthly temperature requirements.
For Carson, the new permit still has no safeguards to prevent a similar occurrence in the future.
It allows Evergreen Packaging to raise the water temperature in the river by a monthly average of 8.5 degrees Celsius when comparing the water upstream of the mill to that downstream.
The state’s proposed permit would have allowed the water temperature to be increased by 13 degrees – instead of only 8.5 if the EPA hadn’t intervened. Also, the state’s draft permit didn’t require sampling of fish tissue for dioxins, cancer causing chemicals.
For Carson, having a daily — not monthly — limit for how much the mill’s discharge raises the temperature of the river is the only answer.
Opponents also point out that the temperature gauge is located nearly half a mile downstream from the mill. That gives the discharge a long distance to mix with the cooler water before being monitored, essentially sacrificing the stretch of river in between.
“It’s far too weak to protect the fisheries in this area,” said Taylor.
Another issue is the amount of color allowed by the latest permit. Color is measured in pounds of discharge per year. The new state permit allows Evergreen Packaging to dump 38,020 pounds per day. Four years from now, Evergreen will be required to reduce that figure to reach between 32,000 and 36,000 pounds of color per day. While it is less that what was allowed under the old permit, the mill had already reduced color to those levels.
“This is right around what they have been discharging anyway,” D.J. Gerken, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It’s not tightening down at all.”
Many in Haywood County have stood up for the mill, arguing that stricter environmental regulations might put the paper mill out of business and deal a massive blow to its workers along with the local economy.
Haywood County commissioners approved a resolution in support of the mill and against the EPA’s objections in March. The resolution first cited that the mill currently employs more than 1,000 area residents.
Commissioners said they supported the state in saying that the color standard is purely “an aesthetics concern and not based on scientific evidence.” They pointed out that 22 other states have similar effluent color standards as North Carolina.
“The [EPA’s] proposed color limit requirements appear to single out Evergreen Packaging without the benefit of support from scientific data,” the resolution said.
Disagreeing with the economic argument, however, Taylor alleges that the Canton paper mill even has a chance of saving money by using more efficient methods that also decrease pollution.
“The mill has available affordable technology that are no threat to the mill or jobs,” said Taylor.
Taylor said she was confident that the current permit requires “significantly less” than what is reasonable and best available technology would require, which is precisely what the Clean Water Act calls for.
“The permit limit is so weak,” said Taylor. “It doesn’t require significant progress at all.”
A 92-acre tract near the Little East Fork of the Pigeon River in the Bethel community in Haywood County has been protected through a conservation agreement by the property owner.
“We are very grateful to everyone involved in this project — and most of all to the landowner — for showing such a great commitment to keeping Bethel rural,” said Steve Eaffaldano, President of the Bethel Rural Community Organization. “We have more work to do to keep Bethel’s rural nature going strong, and we are hopeful that other landowners will consider similar actions to conserve their lands.”
The property owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, entered a conservation agreement with the Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District. The landowner still owns the land and can continue using it, including farming and limited logging, and can also sell it or pass it along to heirs, but the conservation agreement ensures it remains undeveloped forever.
The land includes more than 6,000 feet of headwater streams that provide water for downstream farmers, drinking water people in Canton and Clyde, industrial water for the Canton paper mill, trout habitat, one species of rare fish, two species of rare freshwater mussels and hellbender salamanders.
Project supporters included the Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District, the Southwestern NC RC&D Council, the Bethel Rural Community Organization, and the Pigeon River Fund, which has provided several grants to help protect water quality in the Pigeon River Valley by protecting rural lands.
A trail alongside the Pigeon River may materialize between Canton and Clyde, but recreation will not be its primary purpose.
The goal is to create a buffer zone clear of any development 100 feet from the riverbank as a safeguard in the event of future floods. The buffer strip could additionally be used as a walking trail or biking trail beside the river.
“It’s much more than a recreational use — it’s mitigating a flood hazard,” said Canton Town Manager Al Matthews.
Haywood County, along with the towns of Canton and Clyde, undertook the project shortly after massive flooding on the Pigeon left a devastating wake in 2004.
All three worked together to lock down $1 million from the state Clean Water Management Trust Fund. Though that is far less than the $10 million they originally applied for, the trio still has a chance of receiving additional funding from Clean Water.
Most of the work on the trail now involves acquiring conservation easements for nearly 100 properties in the flood plain next to the river, a process that could take years.
Property owners will be reimbursed for participating with a share of the $1 million that’s been set aside.
Though the program would be mutually beneficial to both landowners and the river, it will be strictly voluntary, according to Tony Sexton, project specialist for Haywood County.
For those who participate, farming alongside the Pigeon could continue, though building new structures would be forbidden.
For now, Sexton is not positive a full-fledged greenway will be achievable. He anticipates a checkerboard effect of conservation easements along the river.
“It’s unusual to get three or four property owners in a row that ever agree on anything,” said Sexton. “The odds of having a continuous swath of property owners is fairly remote.”
Asheville-based Martin-McGill Associates is coordinating the project and will be responsible for acquiring properties or negotiating conservation easements with property owners.
While everyone hopes that the 2004 disaster won’t repeat itself, a buffer would be helpful in case another major flood strikes, said Ellen McKinnon, grant administrator with Martin-McGill.
“This is a proactive thing to do before the next flood,” said Sexton.
McKinnon has begun talking to property owners about the easements, but still spends most of her time with paperwork at this stage.
Sexton agreed that securing the $1 million grant has been a drawn-out process.
“There’s lots of hoops to be jumped through and committees that only meet once every three months,” said Sexton.
Nevertheless, enthusiasm for the project hasn’t faded over the years.
“What we’re trying to do is make the Pigeon River as healthy as possible, so that it can handle the influx of water,” said McKinnon. “These buffers are incredibly helpful to keep the banks stable and keep that sedimentation out of the water.”
“We are excited,” said Joy Garland, town administrator for Clyde. “It’s a great opportunity for the towns, as well as the county.”
A water pollution permit for the Canton paper mill has come under fire by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The pollution permit is up for a periodic review by the state. The EPA isn’t pleased with the standards the state has proposed and is calling for tougher limits.
If the state doesn’t ratchet up the controls, the EPA has threatened to step in and handle the permit itself. The EPA gave the state 90 days to respond with a rewritten permit. Such intervention is rare.
The state environmental engineer who wrote the draft permit was barred from speaking to the press after making controversial comments to other newspapers last week. Sergei Chernikov told media outlets that the standards suggested by EPA would come with astronomical costs that are financially out of reach for Evergreen Packaging. He also defended the mill and spoke out against the tougher requirements being sought by EPA. After the comments appeared in print, the Division of Water Quality press office took over media inquiries related to the EPA intervention.
“The information Sergei expressed was the information he had when he designed the draft permits. But we have other information being evaluated,” said Susan Massengale, public information officer for the Division of Water Quality. “It is a much bigger picture.”
Three hearing officers will ultimately decide on how stringent the state permit is, not the engineer who wrote the draft permit. The suggested limits in the draft permit are only part of what the hearing officers will consider when making a final decision, Massengale said.
They will take into account numerous comments from the public input period, from environmental groups to mill supporters. The EPA falls in that category as well, Massengale said.
“It has submitted its comments for this process the same as any other commenter,” Massengale said.
But unlike the other commenters, the EPA carries regulatory weight and can mandate pollution limits by taking over the permit.
Massengale would not comment on what limits the EPA wants tightened up.
“I am not going to parse the language. That is up to the hearing officers,” Massengale said.
To Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for NC, the EPA recommendations don’t go far enough.
“If you were going to bother objecting to the permit, why not do so in a way that could accomplish a lot more?” Taylor said
For example, the color limit recommended by the EPA of 36,000 pounds a day is only 1,000 pounds less than what the mill is discharging now. And while the EPA is taking a tougher stance on temperature, it would only look at monthly averages, which does nothing to rein in spikes of hot discharges that can lead to fish kills, Taylor said.
During the 1990s, the mill embarked on a $330 million environmental overhaul, spurred partly by expensive lawsuits. Environmentalists and downstream communities want the mill to make further improvements. But instead, it seems progress has plateaued.
As for Evergreen Packaging, they released a written statement about the news saying that the EPA comments were part of the permit process, which is designed to consider all voices and viewpoints.
“We look forward to continuing to work with regulators on finalizing a permit to continue the progress that has been made,” the statement read.
Evergreen paper mill in Canton sucks roughly 29 million gallons a day out of the river and uses it in myriad 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 EPA wants the mill to reduce the dark color of its discharges slightly beyond what the state is calling for and wants to see a study of color going into the Pigeon River. The state was willing to reclassify the mill as being in compliance with the state’s color standards and no longer in need of a color pollution variance, but the EPA maintains that the mill should not come out from under the oversight of a color variance.
The water the mill puts back in the river is much hotter than the river’s natural temperature. The EPA also wants tougher limits on the temperature than the state asked for.
The state also was willing to drop testing of fish tissue for dioxins, since there is no longer a warning against eating any of the fish species from the Pigeon. But the EPA still wants to see testing every other year. The state proposed monitoring dioxin discharges based on a monthly average, but the EPA wants a maximum daily limit imposed as well. The EPA also called for more monitoring in several areas the state was willing to overlook.
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.
After decades of paper mill pollution, the Pigeon River is coming back to life — literally.
Aquatic biologists embarked on a mission several years ago to restore species that had been wiped out by chemical discharges from the mill. After the paper mill retrofitted its operations to improve water quality, the river was once more capable of supporting many of the species that had been killed off.
It was unlikely the species would migrate back into the river on their own, however, and had to be released by biologists. In some cases, that meant trapping the fish and mollusks from other rivers and creeks. In the case of rarer species, such as the tangerine darter, the fish had to be bred in captivity and then released.
So far, signs are good that the fish released into the river are now reproducing on their own.
The biologists tag all the fish they release, using an injection of medical-grade silicone just under the skin that is visible to the naked eye. The biologists return to the same stretch of river the following year and capture fish.
Any without tags were born in the river, showing that particular species is reproducing. So far, those include the silver shiner, telescope shiner, gilt darter, stripetail darter and mountain brook lamprey.
The severe and persistent drought has complicated the mission, however. Last year, stream flows fell to historically low levels. Fish populations were stressed, and low numbers in spring collections led to postponement of some releases.
The Pigeon River Recovery Project is a partnership of state and federal agencies, industry and private organizations.Major partners include Evergreen paper mill (formerly Blue Ridge Paper), N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Haywood Community College, Haywood Waterways Association, Progress Energy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Conservation Fisheries, the N.C. Division of Water Quality, Western Carolina University.
21,000: Fish released into Pigeon River
15: Fish species released
9: Number of sites where fish were released
221,000: Native snails released
1,440: Fish released in Haywood County stretch of Pigeon last year alone
By Julia Mrchant • Staff Writer
A decades-long battle between advocates for a clean Pigeon River and the Canton-based company Blue Ridge Paper Products reared its head last week at a rally where several groups called for further clean-up of the river, which some have referred to as “the dirty bird” due to its pollution levels.
Few rivers have been the focus of as much controversy over the last century as the Pigeon, a fact that makes it worthwhile to also celebrate the victories as the controversy fades away and a whole new era emerges. A major milestone in those efforts — the lifting of the last advisory against eating fish caught downstream of the paper mill in Canton — occurred earlier this month, one that is among the best pieces of news in the river’s recent history.
Students in Haywood County are on the front lines of an ambitious effort to reintroduce a slew of native species to the Pigeon River following decades of pollution from the Canton paper mill that destroyed the aquatic habitat.
Thanks to major environmental investments by Blue Ridge Paper Products in Canton, the last advisory against eating fish downstream of the mill was lifted this month — ending a 20-year effort to clean up the river following decades of pollution from chemicals historically dumped in the river by the mill.