By Julia Ritchey, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
There are few places a visitor can smell before seeing. The town of Canton, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina, is one such place.
Although Blue Ridge Paper, the giant factory that sits squarely at the center of this historic Haywood County mill town on the Pigeon River, has spent more than $500 million on cleanup and mitigation since the 1980s, when locals remember the Pigeon River running black, environmental groups say there’s still much work to be done.
That’s why they’ve turned their attention to the mill’s current application to renew its wastewater permit, which is scheduled for an online public hearing before the N.C. Department of Environment Quality on Wednesday, April 14.
Mayor Zeb Smathers swears the smell in Canton is not exclusively the fault of Blue Ridge Paper.
“It may be a little bit of the mill, but it’s a landfill right off the interstate,” he said of the distinctive odor that sometimes wafts over commuters on Interstate 40.
Still, Smathers knows that smell — slightly sweet and sulphuric — is what gives a lot of people their first impression of Canton, and he says that’s OK.
“I think one thing that started helping us grow is that we decided we were a mill town and we’re proud to be a mill town,” he said. “We’re not a tourist town like so many others.”
Canton is about a half-hour’s drive from Asheville with its high-rise hotels and cavalcade of restaurants.
The paper mill’s environmental record has been a recurring point of news media coverage of the town. Continually operated since the 1900s, Blue Ridge Paper is Canton’s largest employer, making paper products for milk, juice and other beverages.
Smathers remembers the state of the river in the ’80s.
“I mean it was disgusting. I remember that as a young boy. You could not fish or … get into the water below the mill,” he said.
In hot water?
Today, environmental groups are concerned about whether the plant is doing enough to avoid excessive temperature increases in the river, following a legal settlement a decade ago.
“Part of the challenge last time was about whether the plant was putting wastewater into the river that is basically too hot, and that was having harmful effects to aquatic life,” said Patrick Hunter, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Hunter represented several plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed after the last permit reissuance in 2010, which resulted in a settlement two years later.
Water discharged from the mill after production is warmer than the natural flow of the Pigeon River, but under the 2012 settlement, the plant agreed to monitor the temperature of its output based on a weekly instead of monthly average.
Now, environmental groups like MountainTrue and the attorneys who represent these groups are asking that permit be tightened again to require a daily average, ensuring temperatures do not fluctuate downstream by more than 15 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Based on what I’ve seen, I don’t see a justification to not require a daily temperature limit,” Hunter said.
Erin Reynolds, spokesperson for Blue Ridge Paper, said the company believes the current temperature limit protects aquatic life.
“There is a healthy and diverse aquatic community in the Pigeon River in Tennessee, including a trophy smallmouth bass population,” Reynolds said.
Called a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, the NPDES is supposed to be renewed every five years. It has now been six years since the permit acquired by Blue Ridge’s parent company, Evergreen, expired due to regulatory backlogs at the state level.
Another sticking point this time around, according to Hunter, could also involve the amount of chloroform permitted. The proposed permit would relax the limit on discharge, bringing it in line with current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards.
Chloroform is classified as an extremely hazardous substance with suspected links to cancer and birth defects.
The 2010 permit allowed chloroform discharges of up to 5.1 pounds per day as a monthly average. The proposed 2021 permit would increase those limits to 6.27 pounds per day. This change is for a process that takes place within the plant and not a discharge to the Pigeon River.
“There’s several different outfalls at the paper mill, and the change with the chloroform limit deals with an internal outfall, so not a discharge into the river,” Hunter said.
The environmental advocates are still evaluating other parts of the permit and plan to submit feedback ahead of the April 14 hearing, after which the state could make revisions and then a final determination, Hunter said.
“When the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, Congress said our goal here is to eliminate the discharge of waste into navigable waters in America by 1985,” he said.
While the mill, which employs 1,100 people according to Reynolds, has made progress since that time in areas such as impact to the river’s color — the proposed permit would eliminate a 3-decade-old variance to the amount of color allowed — Hunter said it’s no time to reverse course now.
“Just saying, ‘Well, we’ve improved it to a degree…’ that is definitely a good thing. But I think we do need to keep pushing forward,” he said.
Mayor Smathers, who went away to college and law school before returning to help revive his hometown, says he is proud of the improved relationship between the town and the privately owned mill during his tenure, which he describes as “obviously interconnected.”
He plans to speak at the April 14 meeting, too. But he says his remarks will largely reflect his optimistic outlook on the town he’s decided to raise his young family in and the mill’s critical role as an economic driver.
“I’m a moderate. I try to find compromises,” Smathers said. “And I think the mill has made strides across the board in being more environmentally friendly.”
The online hearing will take place at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 14, regarding Blue Ridge Paper’s proposed wastewater permit. The public can give comments during the meeting or submit written comments before Friday, April 30. For more information, visit https://tinyurl.com/juaxw2v6.