Under various names, the plant now known as Blue Ridge Paper Products has been discharging wastewater into the Pigeon River for more than a century. And in recent decades, the brown, foul-smelling waterway has been the focus of an ongoing fight.
Environmentalists maintain that both the discharge permit issued by the North Carolina Division of Water Quality in 2009 and a revised version issued last May fail to meet federal Clean Water Act standards.
“The Clean Water Act says that rivers must meet water-quality standards every day,” notes attorney D.J. Gerken of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The permit sets a monthly average for temperature, but fish need habitable water every day.” What’s more, he argues, “Everyone knows the water they’re discharging doesn’t meet the standards, because the mill got variances which should not have been given.”
On Dec. 15, representatives of Clean Water for North Carolina, the WNC Alliance and the Southern Environmental Law Center, along with other interested parties from Tennessee, will sit down with North Carolina officials in a court-ordered mediation on the Haywood County plant’s permit. A 2007 technical review by the Environmental Protection Agency, they say, recommended stricter standards than what the state permit specifies.
“The permit issued in May is only slightly improved by the EPA’s objections to North Carolina’s 2009 version,” says Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina. Instead of requiring water-quality improvements “at the quickest possible pace” as required by a 1997 settlement agreement, the permit, says Taylor, “prolongs the 102-year injustice by failing to require feasible progress in restoring the river’s health and downstream recreational uses.”
The permit’s author, Division of Water Quality engineer Sergei Chernikov, counters that “This permit was issued with EPA concurrence. … All our permits have to follow federal and state rules; this permit is no different from any other.”
But river advocates say the permit allows the paper mill to discharge wastewater that raises the water’s temperature in violation of state water-quality standards. The permit regulates the average monthly temperature measured almost half a mile downstream but sets no limit on daily fluctuations in the discharge’s temperature.
“In 2007, the death of approximately 8,500 fish near the paper mill was attributed to high water temperatures,” notes French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson of the WNC Alliance. “The high temperatures and temperature fluctuations allowed under the new permit … will increase the likelihood of future fish kills.”
Industrial plants have long relied on adjacent rivers as waste-disposal systems, says Taylor. What sets the Canton plant apart is the size of the stream in question. “Most paper mills of this size are built on the large rivers nearer the coast, bringing a much bigger dilution factor,” she explains. “Champion even admitted it was too big for this tiny mountain stream.”
Built in 1908, the mill was sited to take advantage of the extensive forestlands in the area. In the mid-’90s, a major cleanup effort by what was then called Champion International drastically improved the water’s appearance while significantly reducing dioxin levels in fish. Formerly employee-owned, Blue Ridge Paper is now a subsidiary of the Rank Group, a New Zealand-based private equity firm.
But river advocates say the odor, foam and color issues remain, arguing that the Pigeon still hasn’t been brought up to the standards mandated in the 1972 Clean Water Act. The landmark environmental legislation placed limits on polluters and called for restoring all the nation’s waterways to fishable, swimmable condition by 1983.
A 2007 report issued by Clean Water for North Carolina, subtitled “Still Toxic After All These Years,” noted that while the Pigeon River downstream from the Canton mill no longer contains detectable levels of dioxin, the plant still discharges tens of thousands of pounds of other toxic chemicals under the state permit.
The root problem, these groups argue, is that the law allows states to set “narrative” standards rather than hard, numerical limits for many pollutants and doesn’t require checking actual in-stream levels when monitoring for violations.
“Pulp-and-paper is one of the most polluting industries in the nation,” says Taylor, an environmental toxicologist by training. “These facilities produce a toxic soup of pollutants,” including formaldehyde, ammonia and acetaldehyde, a known carcinogen.
Existing technology, conservationists say, could also reduce the color problem without undue cost. The river’s color, notes Taylor, is an indicator of its ecological health.
The state, says Gerken, “has an obligation to ensure that discharges into North Carolina’s rivers meet water-quality standards. In this case, that simply did not happen. The citizens of both North Carolina and Tennessee deserve better.”
— Direct your environmental news to Susan Andrew: 251-1333, ext. 153, or firstname.lastname@example.org.