“The chances are excellent,” said N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, who sponsored a bill on the mill’s behalf.
The paper mill estimates it will cost $50 million to convert its coal-fired boilers to natural gas in order to meet stricter industrial air pollution limits coming down the pike.
Evergreen paper mill is currently the largest industrial air toxin polluter in Western North Carolina and one of the largest in the state, according to federal emissions reporting.
Davis said he supports the use of state tax dollars to help Evergreen meet new federal regulations.
“If the government is going to require them to do this and that is embedded in the cost of doing business, we should be ready to support that effort,” Davis said, citing the mill’s vital role as a major employer.
Davis hopes to help Evergreen land $2 million a year for six years from the state, but it’s taking some legislative footwork.
Currently, Evergreen doesn’t qualify for state assistance designed to help large manufacturing employers with major capital upgrades. Under the existing criteria, the fund is only available to factories in economically-distressed counties that are making a capital investment of $65 million over three years.
Davis has proposed a language change that would loosen the criteria and thus make Evergreen eligible. The new criteria already passed unanimously in the Senate, and Davis is hopeful it will pass the House.
Haywood County Commissioner Mark Swanger said the current criteria are too narrow and supports the change.
“I think it recognizes the reality that there are businesses in the western part of the state, specifically in Haywood County, that are on a level playing field now and would benefit from this, which in turn helps our economy and tax base,” Swanger said.
If successful, the $12 million grant would come on top of a $2.8 million grant already pledged to help Evergreen with the natural gas conversion — with $2.1 million coming from the N.C. Department Commerce and a $700,000 match committed by Haywood County.
The paper mill has century-old roots in Canton. It employs 1,000 workers there, with another 200 at a satellite factory in Waynesville. It’s the largest factory in Western North Carolina. Fear of losing the mill lurks behind every new environmental regulation.
“We want to do everything we can to keep Evergreen right where it is in Haywood County,” said Davis, who sees the state grant as an economic development move. “It is a lot less expensive to keep jobs we have than try to recruit new ones.”
New air pollution caps
Haywood County has some of the highest levels of industrial air pollution in the state. It ranks fourth out of 100 counties statewide in toxic air emissions, and third statewide in the level of known carcinogens emitted into the air, according to Environmental Protection Agency emissions data for 2010.
Stricter industrial air pollution limits by the EPA are forcing coal-fired factories across the nation to clean up their stacks.
However, a study by the American Forest and Paper Association in 2010 warned that the new industrial air pollution limits could threaten nearly 17,000 jobs at pulp and paper mills nation wide — half of those being in the South — and could force 30 mills to close.
Most major industrial plants already use natural gas or otherwise meet the new standards. The EPA estimates about 1,000 coal-fired or wood-fired boilers nationwide don’t meet the impending rules.
While it’s possible to install pollution control devices, doing so can be just as costly as making the switch to natural gas. The switch to natural gas has other perks, from lower fuel costs to less maintenance in the long run.
The $50 million price tag for a natural gas conversion of the mill is just an estimate. The mill recently began the engineering phase — a $2 million process in itself — which will determine the exact scope of work and cost. The rough estimate of $50 million includes some soft costs the mill would incur in-house.
Meanwhile, unionized paper mill employees and Evergreen officials are currently in contract negotiations for a new labor agreement, a process that rolls around every five years.