Groups reach agreement about Canton paper mill controversy

From the joint press release issued by Clean Water for North Carolina, Cocke County, Tennessee, Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, Western North Carolina Alliance, and the Southern Environmental Law Center:

Asheville, NC – Establishing stricter limits on the temperature of the wastewater discharged into the Pigeon River from the paper mill in Canton, North Carolina, has enabled five conservation and river advocacy groups and downriver Cocke County, Tennessee, to reach an agreement with mill owner Blue Ridge Paper Products and the North Carolina state agency that issued the mill’s permit to discharge into the river.

The mill is located on the banks of the Pigeon River in Canton, North Carolina, in Haywood County, about 30 miles from the Tennessee border.

Besides the county, the groups challenging the terms of the mill’s permit were Clean Water for North Carolina, Western North Carolina Alliance, Clean Water Expected in East Tennessee, Tennessee Scenic River Association, and Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, represented by Southern Environmental Law Center.

The permit issued by the Division of Water Quality (DWQ) of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources allows the paper mill to discharge wastewater into the Pigeon River that raises the temperature of the river as it flows downstream from Canton, NC. Industrial facilities that discharge wastewater into rivers, like the Pigeon, are required to have permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), part of the federal Clean Water Act. In 2007, the death of at least 8,000 fish downstream of the paper mill was attributed to high water temperatures and low water flow and dissolved oxygen levels.

“We believe the new thermal restrictions will help reduce the high temperatures and fluctuations allowed under the prior permit and diminish the adverse effects on the fish and other wildlife that depend on the river,” said Hartwell Carson, the French Broad Riverkeeper. “We hope the result will be healthier aquatic life that is more diverse and that more closely reflects the range of species you would expect to find in a mountain stream.”

In addition to reaching a compromise on temperature limits, the parties also agreed to temporarily suspend legal proceedings challenging the permit while scientists study how the color in the wastewater discharged by the mill affects other users of the Pigeon River, like visitors to the area. Byproducts of the paper mill’s manufacturing process alter the color of the wastewater that it discharges into the Pigeon River. The coalition of conservation groups and downstream users had challenged the adequacy of permit limits on the discharge of colored wastewater, arguing that discoloration of the Pigeon River harms other enterprises that rely on an attractive, healthy river, including recreational fishing, boating, and tourism. The color limits in the permit may be altered next year based on the outcome of the study.

“We believe the dark color makes the river less desirable for fishing, rafting and wading than other, less polluted rivers nearby,” explains Daniel Boone of Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, “so the petitioners have weighed in to improve the color study, and will monitor its progress and results.” Hope Taylor of Clean Water for NC agrees: “Advocacy groups will continue to work together across state lines to improve water quality and ensure that the color levels and other conditions in the river don’t deprive downstream users of safe, high quality recreation.”

About Clean Water for North Carolina: Clean Water for NC, founded in 1984, is a statewide environmental justice organization working with impacted communities for protection of their environmental rights and health, through organizing, research and advocacy. We have worked with hundreds of community partners on issues including contaminated drinking water wells, toxic air emissions, sewer overflows, damaging mountain developments and toxic industrial discharges. WEB:, FACEBOOK: Clean Water for North Carolina; TWITTER: CleanWaterforNC


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