At its Haywood County headwaters, the Pigeon River is just what the words “mountain stream” call to mind: cool, clear waters teeming with aquatic life.
But roughly 40 miles downstream — after some of that water flows through the Evergreen Packaging paper mill in Canton — it’s a different story. Just across the Tennessee border, the water is the color of sweet tea, says Deborah Bahr, director of the environmental advocacy group Clean Water Expected in East Tennessee. More often than not, she adds, the water looks foamy and has a chemical smell that sticks in the back of the throat, “almost like you can taste it.”
Canton’s paper mill, long a source of local environmental concern, is back in the spotlight as advocacy groups and state agencies debate changes to the facility’s wastewater discharge permits, which are on track for renewal later this year. At the request of Tennessee state environmental officials, an online public hearing to review the draft permit, originally scheduled for Jan. 20, was pushed back to mid-April.
For environmentalists, the move is a blessing in disguise: In the coming months, increased attention on the plant could result in tighter pollution restrictions.
“There’s a lot of emotion tied up in this river,” Bahr says. “Progress has been made, but there’s still a significant difference in water quality above and below the mill. And we feel there’s still more to be done to make the Pigeon River cleaner.”
A controversial history
For better or worse, the history of the Pigeon River is intricately tied to that of the Canton paper mill. Now the home of Evergreen Packaging, the former Champion Paper site was built in 1908 to process and bleach pulp for paper and paperboard production. Wastewater is treated on-site before being returned to the Pigeon River.
For years, Bahr explains, the river was known to locals as the “dead Pigeon” due to the sheer amount of debris and chemical contamination discharged by the paper mill. A series of lawsuits in the 1990s prompted a $300 million modernization project to reduce the mill’s environmental impact; environmental groups, along with the states of North Carolina, Tennessee and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, eventually reached a settlement in 1998.
The mill is required to renew its wastewater discharge permit with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System every five years, with each renewal intended to gradually impose stricter water quality regulations. However, the last permit negotiation occurred in 2010, notes Hartwell Carson, French Broad riverkeeper with the Asheville-based nonprofit MountainTrue.
“This is probably the biggest pollution permit in our area,” Carson explains. “We’re now two permit cycles behind, so the incremental improvements that would have ratcheted down the pollutant levels haven’t happened. It’s not nearly as dramatic of a fight as it was 20 years ago, but it’s worth noting that we’re not moving in the right direction.”
In 2014, Evergreen Packaging applied for and received a renewal of its NPDES permit, wrote spokesperson Erin Reynolds in a statement provided to Xpress. Since that time, the mill has worked closely with the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA to develop limits for the new permit that will protect the river and allow the Canton mill to continue operating, she added.
The draft discharge permit currently on the table eliminates a “color variance.” In layman’s terms, Bahr explains, that step would remove a technical designation showing that water quality standards are not being met.
But the term “color” is in itself somewhat misleading, says Axel Ringe, an environmentalist who serves on the Water Quality Committee of the Tennessee Sierra Club. The dark color, he says, is a symptom of the many chemicals left in the mill’s wastewater discharge, including fecal coliform bacteria and chloroform.
The NCDEQ Division of Water Resources agrees with the proposal to remove the color variance, says spokesperson Anna Gurney. A recent reevaluation found “significant improvements to instream concentration of color,” she said in an email. And Reynolds of Evergreen emphasized that the color in the Pigeon River at the North Carolina/Tennessee state border is consistent with that of other rivers in the area, including the French Broad.
Meanwhile, Carson’s main concern with the latest draft permit is water temperature. The mill must maintain a monthly average water temperature not to exceed 29 degrees Celsius (about 84 degrees Fahrenheit) from October through July and 32 degrees Celsius (roughly 90 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer. Upstream and downstream water temperatures must be within 8.5 degrees Celsius (15 degrees Fahrenheit) of one another, but the permit sets no daily maximum temperature.
That’s a problem for aquatic life, Carson says. He points to an incident in 2007 when the mill released a large quantity of hot water, killing more than 8,000 fish.
Most coal burning power plants are required to maintain a temperature differential of just 1 or 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), Ringe points out. “Why should a paper plant be any different?” he asks.
The proposed permit changes also allow the mill to discharge 34 million gallons of water per day, up from the 29.9 million gallons per day allowed in the 2010 iteration. Some of the additional capacity will allow for anticipated growth and water usage in the town of Canton, which uses the mill’s wastewater processing facility to treat its own water. The company is also asking for additional water to be used for unspecified “environmental improvements,” Reynolds said.
Past repermiting cycles for the mill have been vicious affairs, fought with legal action and extensive public comment. But the intention of the process isn’t to pit Evergreen against the community, Carson emphasizes.
“We’re not at all interested in closing the mill — it provides a ton of good-paying jobs and it is fairly efficient, as far as paper mills around the country go,” he says. “But things like a temperature limit are not unreasonable. We’re pushing for that incremental progress.”
And Bahr is quick to point out that the economic impacts of water quality aren’t siloed in Canton. The Pigeon River has become a major rafting and kayaking destination in recent years, fueling a robust paddling industry just over the Tennessee border. Cleaner water means more tourists and with them, more money.
For advocacy groups, the hearing delay provides additional time to educate and engage community members ahead of a final decision on the permit. As of Jan. 19, 120 people had submitted comments to NCDEQ, Gurney said. The public comment period will now close on Friday, April 30.
“Right now, people are trying to figure out how to pay their power bills and rent and get their kids through online learning — and then you add this curveball about standing up for the water,” Bahr says. “A lot of folks are in survival mode, but having clean water is a matter of survival, too.”