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Economy of scale tends to lean toward effectiveness of action, and that’s a fact that three environmental advocacy organizations in Western North Carolina plan to take advantage of over the coming year. By January 2015, the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance, Western North Carolina Alliance and the Environmental Conservation Association, known as ECO, hope to have merged into one organization with a new name and a familiar purpose.    

op frBy Doug Wingeier • Columnist

In early October we spent two weeks in our 150-year-old log cabin situated on a corner of our daughter Ruth and husband John’s 40 acres in central Minnesota, which has no electricity or running water. 

While there we enjoy a simple life — reading by oil lamp and candlelight, outhouse comfort, vegetarian diet, sleeping sundown to sunup. Ruth is a licensed nurse midwife who has delivered more than 2,000 babies (many of them home births) in the 30 years she has lived there. John is recently retired after working as an Alaskan bush pilot, builder and cabinet maker, skilled factory worker, and a math and science teacher. They have raised three boys, the youngest now a college junior.

out frAs Brent Martin stared down the barrel of an impending tug-of-war over WNC’s national forests, he dreaded yet another round in the same old fight that’s played out time and time again in his decades as an environmental advocate.

Loggers versus wilderness lovers. Horseback riders versus hikers. Hunters versus environmentalists.

out frDo you consider yourself an environmentalist or an environmental activist? Do you feel frustrated with the way issues dear to you are being handled by local and state decision makers? Instead of sitting on the sidelines and attempting to influence the political process from the outside, you might want to try becoming part of it.

A new campaign by the Western North Carolina Alliance, a regional environmental organization, is asking local conservationists, tree huggers and eco-activists to consider taking the plunge into the political realm.

bookBy Brent Martin

It is a rare event these days to come across a work of non-fiction dealing with any environmental issue that does not leave one with feelings of despair and loss. Author Jay Leutze, however, has given us a tale of how one little corner of Appalachia, when galvanized to stand up for their homes and natural resources, persevered in the face of despair and overwhelming odds, and won. But Stand Up That Mountain is more than just the story of how the Dog Town community in Avery County, N.C., hung in there for years to ultimately defeat the Putnam rock quarry, it is also a blow by blow account of Leutze’s development as a conservationist — now one of North Carolina’s most valuable and treasured — who had moved to his old family home on Yellow Mountain in the Roan Highlands to withdraw from some such distractions in order to follow his passion to become a writer.

Evergreen Packaging has reached a partial settlement with environmental groups over pollution from the Canton paper mill in the Pigeon River.

Environmental groups had challenged the mill’s pollution permit, claiming that the standards weren’t tight enough. There were two bones of contention: how warm the river gets and the dark color the river takes on due to the mill’s discharges.

The portion of the suit dealing with temperature fluctuations to the river has been settled. Initially, the mill was permitted to raise the temperature of the river by 15 degrees Fahrenheit with its discharges, as measured at a monitoring point about half a mile downstream.

The limit was based on a monthly average, however, so spikes much higher were acceptable as along as it evened out over the course of a month to stay within the acceptable 15 degrees.

Now, the mill has agreed to an additional temperature criteria based on a weekly average. The river cannot exceed a maximum temperature of 89 degrees in summer or 84 degrees in the winter based on a weekly average, under the terms of the new settlement.

That is largely within the temperature confines the mill adheres to already.

“This agreement largely validates what was already a good permit ... the result of a good process,” Blue Ridge Plant Manager Dane Griswold said in a statement. “Having this issue settled means we can continue to provide jobs for hundreds of Western North Carolina families, continue to meet the needs of our customers and ensure the quality of the Pigeon River continues to improve.”

Hope Taylor, the director of Clean Water for North Carolina, said the temperature standard is still too lax in her book.

“We would have liked to go far enough to have a true mountain cold water stream downstream of the mill,” Taylor said.

But moving the mill toward a weekly average instead of a monthly average is still progress, said Taylor, who has been wrangling with the Canton paper mill over water quality issues for more than a decade.

Taylor said in some instances water in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit has been discharged into the river by the mill. For monitoring purposes, however, the river’s temperature is taken about half a mile downstream of the discharge point, after the hotter water has mixed with the rest of the river.

The lawsuit was filed by Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of several groups: the Western North Carolina Alliance, Clean Water for North Carolina, the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association, Cocke County, Tenn., and Clean Water Expected for East Tennessee.

The paper mill sucks roughly 29 million gallons a day out of the river and uses it in a myriad of aspects of the paper making process — from cooling coal-fired boilers to flushing chemicals through wood pulp  — and then dumps it back in the river again.

The settlement was reached “without any admission of liability” on Evergreen’s part, the agreement makes a point of noting.

 

Too dark? You decide

Another area environmental groups contested in the suit is how dark the river’s color should be. Discharges from the mill darken the color of the river. The state considers this purely an aesthetic issue, governed by a subjective standard. Whether the river is too dark is in the eye of the beholder.

The state has wagered that the color of the river is acceptable, and the mill no longer needs regulation on this front. Environmental groups argued the river is still too dark, however.

To resolve the issue, the mill will soon undertake a public perception study. A random panel will be asked to size up the color of the river upstream and downstream of the mill.

The environmental groups have agreed to table their concerns over color pending the outcome of the study. In the meantime, Taylor said her organization is riding herd on the protocols for how the study will be carried out to ensure it is done fairly.

“Blue Ridge Paper is paying for the consultants who are coming in to do this study, so you have to assume they would bias the study,” Taylor said. “There is a way to really manipulate the way the study goes.”

For example, the mill initially proposed taking the panel to view downstream portions of the river first where the water is darker due to the discharges, then to the upstream portions where the water is clear. But the color contrast of the river downstream would likely be more striking if viewed the other way around — seeing the clear stretch first then the darker stretch, Taylor said. So she proposed a different methodology: splitting the panel into two groups in terms of viewing order.

“We said, ‘No, you have to have to have half of them go one way and half go the other way,’” Taylor said.

Taylor also wants to ensure the panel doesn’t have anyone on it who works at the mill, or whose family members work at the mill. She is also scrutinizing the way the questions will be phrased and the spectrum of multiple-choice answers.

Mike Cohen, a spokesperson for the Canton mill, said the issue of color is primarily aesthetic, thus the subjective standard is appropriate.

But Taylor believes there are underlying ecological concerns from the color of the river.

“We see that color as evidence of the chemical soup coming into the river,” Taylor said. Some of those compounds could be toxic, said Taylor, even though the state doesn’t currently classify them as toxic.

Even on the basis of aesthetics, the color is still a black mark against the mill, according to the lawsuit.

“We believe the dark color makes the river less desirable for fishing, rafting and wading than other, less polluted rivers nearby,” said Daniel Boone of Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association in a press statement.

Taylor said the mill should not deprive the public from being able to use and enjoy the river as a resource.

Whether the public is indeed bothered by the river’s color — based on the opinions of the random panel that is selected — will be borne out by the study in coming months, with the results finalized in early 2013.

The parties in the suit will then revisit the issue of color. The mill hopes the study will resolve the concerns and the rest of the suit can be dismissed, according to a statement by the mill.

 

Permit, take III

The environmental standards in the mill’s water pollution permit have already been tightened once compared to what the state initially suggested. The state was sent back to the drawing board once by the Environmental Protection Agency, which intervened in the pollution permit two years ago.

The state had initially recommended looser temperature criteria. The state also deemed the mill had already done enough to improve the color in the river, and that the color discharges were now acceptable and no longer needed regulating through a permit.

But the EPA called for tighter limits, telling the state to tighten up temperature fluctuations. Under the state’s original permit, the mill would have been allowed to raise the river’s temperature by as much as 25 degrees Fahrenheit downstream of the mill based on a monthly average, but the EPA reined it in to only 15 degrees warmer.

The EPA also wasn’t convinced color was no longer an issue. The study to determine whether color was within acceptable levels was a result of the EPA stepping in, Taylor said. The EPA also wanted tougher monitoring requirements on dioxins and fish tissue testing.

The permit was approved by the state two years ago in May 2010. Technically, the permits are up for review every five years.

“It is pretty much a continual process,” said Cohen, the mill spokesperson.

In reality, it is often longer between permits. Before the new one was adopted in 2010, the last one before that dated to 2001. The mill operated under an extension of that 2001 permit for four years while a new one was being worked out.

The river downstream from the mill is far cleaner today than anytime in the mill’s 100-year history. The Pigeon River was once so polluted few fish species could survive and it was unsafe for people to swim in.

During the 1990s, the mill embarked on a $300 million environmental overhaul, spurred partly by expensive class action lawsuits.

The biggest environmental victory of the 1990s was getting the mill to drastically reduced dioxin, the most toxic chemical discharged into the river. The final health advisory against eating fish caught downstream of the mill was lifted in 2005. Fish once wiped out by the mill’s pollution are being reintroduced in a joint effort between the mill and state wildlife and environmental agencies.

But environmentalists and downstream communities want the mill to make further improvements. But instead, it seems progress has plateaued.

A sweeping status report on natural resources in the mountains is being developed by a regional task force, serving as a tool for decision makers to understand the ecological context of issues they face.

The Mountain Resources Commission plans to issue the WNC Sustainability and Vitality Index by the end of the year.

“It is going to be a report card for Western North Carolina,” Jay Leutze, a board member on the Mountain Resources Commission. “This sustainability and vitality index is giving us that snapshot now of how we are doing.”

Leutze said the index will provide a benchmark that the health of the region’s natural resources can be measured against in the future. It is a massive undertaking, funded with a $140,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service.

Much of the data already exists, whether it is endangered species surveys by the Fish and Wildlife Service or imparied waterways by the N.C. Division of Water Quality. The breadth of ecological data on the region is enormous.

“We live in on one of the most progressive places in the world for understanding its natural resources,” Leutze said.

But it doesn’t reside in one place. The Sustainability Index will change that.

“It is going to be a major, big organic living document,” Leutze said. “We want to be a resource people can access across the mountains where people can get standard data sets.”

The Mountain Resources Commission was formed in 2009 by the N.C. General Assembly and got to work in 2010. The 17-member commission was tasked with studying environmental issues facing Western North Carolina, particularly those brought about by growth and development.

The bill creating the Mountain Resources Commission narrowly made it through the General Assembly that year.

“It was the last bill that passed in that session of the General Assembly,” Leutze said.

It was well into the night on the last day of the lawmakers’ session when it slid through.

“They are bound by law not to go past midnight unless they climb up on a ladder and literally stop the clock. That bill passed with the clock physically stopped, and it was a miracle it got through. Mountain legislators are the key to it passing,” Leutze said.

Joe Sam Queen, a former state senator from Waynesville, was integral in the formation of the Mountain Resources Commission, helping to give birth to the idea and providing the heft to get it passed, Leutze said.

“There were a lot of fears raised over who these people were going to be and are they going to come into our communities and tell use how to be,” Leutze said.

That’s not the case, however.

“We are not regulatory,” Leutze said. The commission may recommend policies and other solutions to safeguard natural resources, but would have to convince state lawmakers or county commissioners to take them up on it.

Leutze spoke about the Mountain Resources Commission during the annual conference of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area held at Lake Junaluska Conference Center this week, bringing together players in the tourism industry from across WNC.

“A very important part of our mountain culture is agricultural and natural heritage,” Angie Chandler, executive director of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, said by way of introduction. “It is vital we sustain that so we can continue to reap the benefits of being able to live and work in Western North Carolina.”

Leutze showed a series of maps depicting development over the past four decades. What was a thumb-print sized patch over Asheville in 1970 had spread like a ink blot over the map by the last slide.

“It is a challenge to us to handle well what is coming our way,” said Leutze, who is also on the board for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, a land conservation trust.

Those from this area on the commission include Tom Massie of Sylva and Bill Gibson of the Southwestern Regional Commission.

Environmental advocates are troubled by major budget cuts and the loss of staff for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, cuts they say will stretch those tasked with monitoring polluters too thin to do their jobs and eliminate beneficial programs.

The state budget cut 160 jobs from DENR.

“DENR as a whole is getting bigger cuts than any other agency,” said Tom Bean, lobbyist with the N.C. Wildlife Federation.

Those jobs are largely coming from regional offices, including 18 positions — more than 20 percent — of the staff in the Asheville DENR office. DENR headquarters in Raleigh, where many environmental permits get issued, is seeing few cuts, however.

SEE ALSO: By air, by land and by water

“It is certainly an industry wish list,” said DJ Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Make sure that they are staying staffed up for issuing permits but cut the staffing for the people who do the policing.”

People who live near dirty industries — asphalt plants with a decibel limit, quarries with blasting restrictions, or paper mills with water pollution limit — will be left out in the cold with no one to turn to when those limits are violated, said Julie Mayfield with WNC Alliance.

“When they observe a problem they call DENR. If they get the right person on the phone it takes that person and hour and a half to get there and whatever was happening may not be happening anymore by the time they get there,” Mayfield said. “If DENR doesn’t observe the potential violation, it is more difficult for them to enforce.”

DENR staffers are the first line of defense in keeping mud out of creeks and rivers. They monitor development and construction in the majority of mountain counties, which don’t have erosion officers at the county level. Even in Haywood, Jackson and Macon, where counties do run their own erosion enforcement, DENR staff still monitors sites that fall outside a county’s jurisdiction, like rock quarries or DOT road projects. In Haywood County, state erosion inspectors even had to crack down recently on sediment violations by federal contractors on Superfund clean-up run by the EPA.

Already stretched too thin, visits from state inspectors were few and far between at the Allens Creek rock quarry. Runoff was muddying Allens Creek for months last year before neighbors finally got DENR to respond.

But Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-Marion, said the Asheville DENR office seemed overstaffed.

They have a bigger staff but issue fewer permits. On top of that, they are issuing more violations, Gillespie said.

“They are doing more notices of violation than anybody else. They are spending their time going out there and doing violations instead of doing permits like they are supposed to,” Gillespie said.

In addition to the budget cuts this year, DENR’s Asheville office will be under the microscope, required to justify every dime of funding in a massive review of its operations.

“The justification review is to make sure they are doing their job, and if not they will be eliminated,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie said the new majority has a mandate from voters to reform all of state government and he is just doing the job he was asked to do.

Many programs under DENR have lost their funding.

One program that no longer exists helped people fix failing septic tanks. The fund was critical in cleaning up unsafe levels of bacteria from raw sewage making its way into Richland Creek in Waynesville and Scotts Creek in Sylva.

Another program that has been cut funded local efforts to curb sediment and erosion. A joint project was in the pipeline by four nonprofit watershed associations in the seven western counties to launch a training course for graders and contractors.

“As you know our streams have been muddy, muddy, muddy, and this would be a real basic attempt to get good, enforceable erosion control training for contractors,” said Roger Clapp with the Tuckaseigee Watershed Association. But “that money was zeroed out.”

Clapp also had a $20,000 grant in the pipeline from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to do fish sampling in the Tuckasegee.

“We were trained to go and ready to launch,” Clapp said. “It would be the basis for really knowing the river in another dimension.”

But that money was lost as well.

Back in January, a group of environmental advocates gathered for after-work beers at Craggie Brewery in Asheville where they heard a sobering message from one of their green-minded compatriots. In just a couple weeks, new leadership would take the reins of state government in Raleigh, and things probably weren’t going to be pretty on the environmental front.

“That has certainly been born out in spades,” said Julie Mayfield, who was the invited speaker that week at Asheville Green Drinks, a standing meeting for those in the environmental community.

While they were bracing for less-than-friendly legislation from the new Republicans majority, Dan Crawford, a lobbyist with the League of Conservation Voters, said they were “shocked with what we got.”

SEE ALSO: Loss of regulators means fewer inspections, say environmentalists

“To see the environmental assault that took place this session was quite surprising,” Crawford said. “It is like a game of whack a mole — there are all these new laws popping up that we’ve been trying to fight. I call this the 87-day war on the environment.”

Keeping up with the so-called assault was more than a one-person job. Close to 2,000 bills were introduced this session, and the League of Conservation Voters flagged about 200 to watch. Crawford’s group pays for a bill tracking service to keep on top of what’s being introduced or amended.

But that wasn’t what made this year one of the worst in history for environmental lobbyists.

“It was very hard to get the ear of our legislators on anything related to the environment,” said DJ Gerken, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville. “There was very little interest from the leadership or bill sponsors to hear concerns from counter viewpoints.”

When the writing was on the wall and there was no hope of stopping a bill, they at least tried to lessen its blow.

“It is better to drink the poison that makes you sick than the poison that kills you,” Crawford said. “There were many times in the session that we went down fighting.”

What environmentalists have dubbed rollbacks, however, others consider needed reform. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said environmental regulations in the state have run amok, and it is time to reassess many of them.

“For myself and my kids and my grandkids, I want clean water and I want clean air as much as the next person. But regulation, in my opinion, some of it is onerous and in some cases it is counter-productive,” Davis said.

The new Republican majority in the General Assembly has overturned a host of environmental policies. Some bills are a direct answer to request from industry, like a repeal of the state’s toxic emission standards specifically sought by Evergreen paper mill in Canton. There’s even the vaguely worded “Act to amend certain environmental laws,” a catch all where legislators seemingly inserted fixes to address pet peeves of constituents — from increasing the size of dams that need a state permit to lifting the ban on incinerating plastic bottles.

Meanwhile, new rules are being blocked from going on the books. Bills in the General Assembly have barred any new environmental rules that are more stringent than federal limits. And environmental agencies can no longer set their own policies.

“The more regulations we have means more regulators and the more hoops we have to jump through, so I think it is time to take a breather and sit back and examine them,” Davis said.

Sometimes, environmental rules bear an uncanny resemblance to a make-work program for regulators. Davis pointed to emission limits for arsenic imposed on Jackson Paper. As soon as one target was met, regulators raised the bar.

“It ensures their job for one thing. If all these goals are met, then we have to find another goal to impose on people,” Davis said. “Frankly, we have a lot of business in the United States that just says The heck with this. I am moving to Malaysia or Mexico or China where we don’t have to deal with these issues.’”

But Gary Wein, executive director of the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust, doesn’t want to see the state move backwards in its environmental protections.

It may make it easier for industry to operate, but society will bear the cost in the long run, said Wein.

“We are still cleaning up messes from 50 to 60 years ago when there were no environmental regulations,” Wein said.

On the Highlands-Cashiers plateau, a scenic beauty and a healthy environment is vital not just to tourist but a healthy second-home economy, said Michelle Price, director of the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance.

“I think a lot of folks come to North Carolina because of the environment,” said Price. “If we are not protecting our environment, they will go somewhere else.”

George Ivey, a farmland specialist and conservation consultant in Haywood County, said the environment is actually valued by companies.

“When businesses are looking to relocate, they are looking for places with high quality of life and the environment is part of it,” Ivey said.

Crawford said he doesn’t know how long it might take to undo the anti-environmental policies promulgated this session. If a new legislature takes over next election, it’s doubtful they would burn precious political capital restoring environmental policies.

“The environment is not the only area that has been attacked by this General Assembly. There are plenty of other things that have to go into the fix bag,” Crawford said.

The environmental community is pinning modest hopes on a governor’s veto, but was selective in which bills it is looking for help with.

“It would be unrealistic to ask her to veto everything. We are one interest group of many and she has her hands full,” Crawford said.

Read on for a snapshot of a few of the budget cuts and bills that environmental advocates are fretting over.

 

Senate Bill 781

This is environmentalists’ public enemy No. 1. Environmental agencies would lose their ability to enforce regulations and adopt rules, instead placing that power with the General Assembly and falling back on federal standards.

“The regulatory authority of our state agencies is under assault by this bill,” said DJ Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The General Assembly would have to sign off on anything that resembles an environmental standard, from designating trout streams to determining emissions standards for factories.

“It really handcuffs the ability of agencies to do their job,” said Tom Bean, lobbyist with the N.C. Wildlife Federation.

The Wildlife Commission couldn’t even adjust innocuous hunting laws, like setting a new opening day for squirrel season, since it classifies as a “rule making” by an environmental agency. Bean said the General Assembly probably doesn’t realize exactly what they’ve bitten off.

“There would be a bottleneck initially and they will have to undo some of this because it will be so unworkable,” Bean said. “Program by program, they are going to have to have broader authority reinstated.”

The bill, which passed both chambers, is billed as “regulatory reform.”


Backseat to federal standards

An environmental provision in the budget forbids new environmental rules that are stronger than federal minimum standards. North Carolina has several environmental laws that go beyond the bare minimum required at the federal level.

“Here in the west, trout buffers, the Clean Smokes Stack Act and the Ridge Law have made an extraordinary difference in our environment,” said Julie Mayfield, director of the WNC Alliance. “If the philosophy is, we should only protect the environment to the extent the federal government tells us we should, we wouldn’t have any of those things.”


Catch-all regulation rewrite

House Bill 119, a loosely titled act to “amend certain environmental and natural resource laws” is chock full of technical rule changes that provide loopholes and exemptions from environmental permits. One of the many changes in the bill would allow even larger dams to be built without a permit, doubling the threshold for how big it must be before triggering state oversight.

In Jackson County, when an earthen dam on the golf course of Balsam Mountain Preserve collapsed three years ago, it sent a torrent of muddy water downstream, wiping out the aquatic ecosystem and filling the water with sediment for miles downstream. That dam was barely large enough to need a state permit, but even at its size wrought major environmental damage when it collapsed due to faulty design.


Loss of conservation funding

Less money for conservation this year means special tracts of lands won’t get protected but instead will be sold for development.

“We have interested land owners with high-quality, high-priority lands, but the grant money is not there to protect those assets so they remain at risk of development, losing the potential to be a source of fresh food, fresh water, food production, scenic views, flood protection, all of those values, even tourism,” said George Ivey, a farmland specialist and conservation consultant and grant writer in Haywood County.

Land trusts rely on state trust funds to help with the cost of preserving special places. But this year, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund — the primary source of money for land conservation in the mountains — has been cut from to $11.5 million from last year’s amount of $50 million, and a precipitous drop from historic levels of $100 million up until two years ago.

“It really has been a bumpy ride for Clean Water (trust fund),” said Gary Wein, executive director for the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust.

Wein was working with a landowner in Jackson in hopes of protecting a tract of several hundred acres, but the loss of incentive funds will likely sideline the effort.

Another project to improve trout habitat in the Cullasaja River will be stopped in its tracks as well. A two-part plan was hatched to cool down the water, which was unnaturally warm and unable to support trout.

A channel flowing through the Cullasaja golf course would be redesigned from its shallow, slow-moving course to a deeper swifter one. And, the flow coming off a reservoir would be altered so the river runs out of the bottom of the pond where the water temperature is cooler instead of flowing off the top.

Other pots have been reduced too, like the Farmland preservation Trust Fund, Parks & Recreation Trust Fund and the Natural Heritage Trust Fund.

Cherokee Middle School students have been getting a dose of hands-on science in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park this summer.

Students in the Cherokee Science Investigation camp highlighted some of the exciting biological research that is occurring in the Smokies. The camp allows students to work with park rangers and researchers in the park.

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