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Thursday, 21 August 2014 15:33

Evergreen gets its green: Lawmakers approve $12 million for natural gas upgrades in Canton

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In a last-minute turnaround, North Carolina lawmakers wrapped up their short session last week with passage of a bill granting Evergreen Packaging’s paper mill in Canton $12 million for natural gas upgrades.

 

The economic incentive money was initially denied on grounds that the bill had been loaded down with extra amendments many were finding unpalatable. After being voted down Aug. 19, it was then passed the next day — minus the extra amendments.

“[The bill] was lost yesterday and today it’s been found,” N.C. Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, said after the bill’s passage. “The mill is safe and the plant will be served with natural gas. I hope we have a long and secure future for Evergreen Packaging and the jobs and workers of Haywood County.” 

The paper mill estimates it will cost $50 million to convert its coal-fired boilers to natural gas in order to meet stricter industrial air pollution limits coming down the pike. Evergreen paper mill is currently the largest industrial air toxin polluter in Western North Carolina and one of the largest in the state, according to federal emissions reporting. 

The temporary impasse was resolved by stripping out contentious amendments that had been tacked on, such as $20 million in economic incentive money, and instead reverting to a previous Senate version of the bill, which hadn’t included those measures. 

The House bill with extra amendments piled on had been sponsored by N.C. Rep. Michelle Presnell, R-Burnsville. She defended her failed bill, but also conceded that it was too loaded down to gain the necessary votes.

“They had put all these other amendments in,” she said. “It just weighed it down.”

Presnell did say that lawmakers who killed the original bill did so because they failed to grasp the importance of economic incentives in keeping and luring business to the state. 

“They’re just not for jobs and economic development, and I was,” Presnell said. “They just don’t understand that states all around us — Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia — they all have incentives, therefore we have to.”

And while Presnell would have liked to see the economic incentives approved, she knows that the paper mill money was dead without carving away her bill’s add-ons and getting back to the basics of the original bill.

“It was the pure language,” Presnell said.

The $12 million headed to the paper mill in Canton will be doled out over six years. 

“This action sends a clear message to current and prospective employers that North Carolina is a state that promotes economic development and stability while providing an environment for manufacturers to operate and thrive,” Dane Griswold, Evergreen’s general manager for its Waynesville-Canton operations, said in a statement. 

The $12 million state grant comes on top of a $2.8 million grant already pledged to help Evergreen with the natural gas conversion — with $2.1 million coming from the N.C. Department Commerce and a $700,000 match committed by Haywood County.

Evergreen employs more than 1,000 people at its Canton mill and pumps around $500 million — including payroll — into the local economy. Financial assistance with the mandated upgrades — considered by critics to amount to corporate welfare — was painted by the company as essential to its operations. 

The bill now awaits the signature of Gov. Pat McCrory. The governor, who was pushing for the economic incentives carved out of the passed bill, could potentially request the General Assembly reconvene to address such funds. 

— By Jeremy Morrison and Garret K. Woodward

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