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The long struggle for a clean Pigeon River

An effort to reduce harmful discharges from Blue Ridge Paper Products’ mill in Canton, NC

View table of toxic releasesWhat’s needed to restore the Pigeon?Watch The Pigeon River Project on YouTube

The long-polluted Pigeon River, flowing through the heart of Cocke County, hasn’t been “fishable” or “swimmable” for over 100 years, and it’s hopeless as a source of treatable drinking water for downstream communities like Hartford and Newport. As everyone knows in east Tennessee, the source of the pollution is the former Champion pulp and paper mill in Canton, now owned by Evergreen Packaging (formerly Blue Ridge Paper Products, Champion), which discharges about 25 million gallons of hot, brown wastewater each day to this tiny mountain River. It’s sparkling clean upstream of the Mill. Even after flowing more than 30 miles, and settling in Waterville Lake, the water still gushes brown and turbid from Progress Energy’s turbines near the TN line. Boaters and residents near the River still report standing foam, papermill odor and skin irritations. Toxic releases to water are still over 100,000 pounds each year.

After a historic 1997 Settlement Agreement for a challenge by Tennessee, Cocke County and organizations to a “do nothing” North Carolina permit for the Canton Mill, the River’s condition improved significantly for three years. Since that time, North Carolina’s permits have allowed the clean up to almost completely stall, and the Mill has spent little to actually improve water quality. That $300 million that Evergreen says they’ve spent? That was for a mill “modernization” that Champion completed in 1993. It was as much about making the mill more profitable as about improving air and water.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s involvement in mediating that settlement brought in new, science-based pollution reduction expertise, which became known as the “Tech Team.” The resulting 1998 permit called for a decrease of almost 50% in dark color, and the River improved enough by 2000 to increase recreation downstream significantly, but Cocke County’s household income is still far below that of neighboring or upstream counties.

When EPA, NC and TN signed the 1997 Settlement Agreement, they committed that water quality improvement would continue “at the quickest possible pace.” Shortly thereafter, Champion sold the Mill to its employees and a private equity firm, and renamed it Blue Ridge Paper Products. The new company said they knew they had “more work to do” to finish cleaning up the River, so environmental groups in NC, TN and a national recreation group carried out a “joint study” with the Mill in 2001, before the Mill’s next wastewater permit. Based on the process changes described in the ‘joint study” report and the EPA’s own “Tech Team,” River advocates were confident that the Mill could reduce color (an indicator of a diverse chemical soup from pulping and bleaching) affordably by over 25% by 2006, and even further in its next five year permit.

Instead, North Carolina issued 2001 and 2009 permits that gave the Mill all the excuses they needed to stall out any clean up, whine about exorbitant costs and lost jobs, and spurned the goals of the Clean Water Act to make every river fishable and swimmable.

After hundreds of folks showed up in Newport and Waynesville to protest the most recent permit, EPA stepped in, but may have only undermined hopes for further cleanup on the River.

EPA’s official letter of objection only called on NC to improve the final color limit by 3%, and ignored the need for protective daily limits on color and hot discharges. EPA disregarded its own Tech Team’s studies and standards in a cowardly attempt to fend off a challenge from downstream communities and River advocates, and didn’t even argue that it should have a continued role in cleaning the Pigeon. Predictably, NC made minimal improvements. EPA blessed the permit, displaying the same regulatory neglect that has brought us decades of controversy, protecting big polluter interests at the expense of downstream waters and communities.

Cocke County has shown determination and courage in their long fight for a clean River, and deserves far better. The movement must grow in East Tennessee and beyond, agencies must be held accountable for actually protecting downstream communities’ water, economy and health.

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