The wastewater-discharge permit for the Evergreen Packaging Group’s paper mill in Canton, N.C., expired nearly a year ago. The former Blue Ridge Paper plant releases some 20 million gallons of treated wastewater daily into the Pigeon River, a tiny mountain stream that attracts boaters and anglers as it threads its way through the Great Smoky Mountains and into eastern Tennessee. And though the coffee-colored water and foul smell that characterized the river for years were dramatically improved by a substantial cleanup effort in the late ‘90s, environmentalists argue that the “Dirty Bird” still suffers from the impacts of that industrial wastewater. Once every five years, when the permit comes up for renewal, clean-water activists flood the relevant agencies with demands for tighter restrictions.
An expired permit doesn’t mean the mill is in violation. The company still adheres to the terms of its old permit and has filed a timely application for a new one. But to the dismay of nonprofits like Clean Water for North Carolina, the current permit-renewal process—representing the latest chance for improvement—has become mired in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency bureaucracy.
“This has been known to be a hot-topic permit for the last 15 years,” says filmmaker Brian Overholt. “It’s something that you’d think they wouldn’t fall asleep on.” His minidocumentary, The Pigeon River Project, will debut at the upcoming Wild & Scenic Environmental Film Festival, a benefit for the nonprofit. Overholt, who works as a photojournalist for Channel 6 News in Knoxville, says his film features interviews with people who’ve been advocating for a cleaner Pigeon River for years.
Overholt says he never paid too much attention to the debate about the river’s water quality when he was growing up in Newport, Tenn., and he frequently went on raft trips there. “I didn’t give it a second thought until the floods of 2004, when we had gone [rafting] when the water was really big,” he says. “And then we found out a few days later that they had released all the sewage from the treatment plant because it was overrun … and basically announced that there was sewage in the water. That was the point where I personally woke up.”
The Pigeon River Project is a local addition to the Asheville edition of the traveling festival, which has never come to Western North Carolina before. Sponsored by Patagonia, an outdoor clothing and equipment manufacturer, this year’s offerings will be screened by environmental groups in 50 different venues nationwide. It’s a green-themed sampling of some of the top picks from the three-day Wild & Scenic Environmental Film Festival held annually in Nevada City, Calif.
“The focus of it is to be a festival by activists, for activists,” explains Clean Water’s Gracia O’Neill.
The other six flicks cover a variety of environmental topics. The Lost People of Mountain Village addresses the perils of overdevelopment. The mockumentary concerns a lost backcountry skier who accidentally stumbles upon a resort-community-turned-ghost-town.
Ride of the Mergansers is a wildlife movie that tour manager Susie Sutphin calls “a huge crowd pleaser.”
“It’s a documentary on the hooded merganser, which is a carnivorous duck,” she explains. “And it’s about their little chicks hatching and learning how to fly. It’s very comical. … They just kind of climb up out of their little nest, and they fling themselves 12 feet below into a lake.”
The Wild & Scenic Environmental Film Festival was launched in 2003 by the South Yuba River Citizens League, based in Nevada City, “to mobilize the community, to raise awareness, and to raise funds,” according to Sutphin. Within a few years, environmental groups with myriad causes had begun hosting their own screenings to drum up support in their communities.
Asheville’s festival will be held Thursday, Oct. 25, at the Asheville Pizza and Brewing Co. on Merrimon Avenue, from 7 to 10 p.m. Garland Galloway, president of Madison County’s Laurel Valley Watch, will speak at the event, and Asheville City Council member Robin Cape will emcee. Tickets ($10) may be purchased at Asheville Pizza and Brewing. Event organizers encourage festivalgoers to buy their tickets in advance.