Advocates for a cleaner Pigeon River have filed a formal challenge against a state water pollution permit for the Canton paper mill that was renewed this summer. They allege that Evergreen Packaging can well afford to be held to stricter environmental standards.
Though the Environmental Protection Agency took a rare step in demanding stricter standards from the N.C. Division of Water Quality, some say the federal agency did not go far enough.
“We really wish they had pushed the envelope even further,” said Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina. “We felt they had strong grounds to be able to do so.”
The advocates’ objections are many, but their two chief complaints are that the permit doesn’t adequately regulate the temperature and the color of the water discharged from the Canton paper mill into the Pigeon River.
The paper mill draws roughly 29 million gallons a day out of the river and uses it in myriad aspects of the paper making process — from cooling coal-fired boilers to flushing chemicals through wood pulp — before returning it to the river.
“Citizens downstream from the plant are being deprived of high quality recreational experiences as well as a healthy environment to develop their businesses and raise their families,” said Iliff McMahan, Jr., Mayor of Cocke County, Tenn., in a statement.
Mike Cohen, a spokesman for Evergreen, said the company has no public comment about the appeal that was filed.
Sergei Chernikov, the state environmental engineer who was charged with writing the permit, said he, too, could not comment.
Jamie Kritzer, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, confirmed the agency had received the petition last week.
“We haven’t had an opportunity to review the specific comments made in the challenge,” said Kritzer. “Challenges like this are very much a part of the process.”
The mill must renew its water pollution permit every five years. The state imposes tougher limits on the mill every time the permit comes up, and as a result, the Pigeon River has made a dramatic turnaround in water quality.
During the 1990s, the mill embarked on a $300 million environmental overhaul, spurred partly by lawsuits. Fish consumption advisories for every species in the Pigeon have now been lifted due to the major reduction of chemicals. The better water quality gets, the tougher it gets to make additional incremental improvements, however.
As for the next step, a formal hearing akin to a court proceeding will be held by the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings, likely three to four months from now. In the meantime, all parties will be allowed to file more detailed pre-hearing statements, which will include facts that will be used to determine the case. The current permit will remain in effect unless it is overturned.
Opponents line up
The Southern Environmental Law Center will argue the appeal on behalf of Clean Water Expected for East Tennessee, Clean Water for North Carolina, Cocke County, Tenn.; the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, Tennessee Conservation Voters, Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association and Western North Carolina Alliance.
The sheer number of groups that have signed on is telling, according to Hartwell Carson, French Broad Riverkeeper for the Western North Carolina Alliance.
“This is a big deal,” said Carson “ You have county government, you have environmental groups, you have rafting folks. It’s a pretty broad spectrum.”
In filing the challenge, the groups cited a 2007 incident in which hot water discharged from the mill killed more than 8,000 fish. That occurrence did not count as a violation of the mill’s permit, which measures compliance based on a monthly average. The spike, while deadly to fish, did not bump the mill to more than the monthly temperature requirements.
For Carson, the new permit still has no safeguards to prevent a similar occurrence in the future.
It allows Evergreen Packaging to raise the water temperature in the river by a monthly average of 8.5 degrees Celsius when comparing the water upstream of the mill to that downstream.
The state’s proposed permit would have allowed the water temperature to be increased by 13 degrees – instead of only 8.5 if the EPA hadn’t intervened. Also, the state’s draft permit didn’t require sampling of fish tissue for dioxins, cancer causing chemicals.
For Carson, having a daily — not monthly — limit for how much the mill’s discharge raises the temperature of the river is the only answer.
Opponents also point out that the temperature gauge is located nearly half a mile downstream from the mill. That gives the discharge a long distance to mix with the cooler water before being monitored, essentially sacrificing the stretch of river in between.
“It’s far too weak to protect the fisheries in this area,” said Taylor.
Another issue is the amount of color allowed by the latest permit. Color is measured in pounds of discharge per year. The new state permit allows Evergreen Packaging to dump 38,020 pounds per day. Four years from now, Evergreen will be required to reduce that figure to reach between 32,000 and 36,000 pounds of color per day. While it is less that what was allowed under the old permit, the mill had already reduced color to those levels.
“This is right around what they have been discharging anyway,” D.J. Gerken, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It’s not tightening down at all.”
Threat to jobs?
Many in Haywood County have stood up for the mill, arguing that stricter environmental regulations might put the paper mill out of business and deal a massive blow to its workers along with the local economy.
Haywood County commissioners approved a resolution in support of the mill and against the EPA’s objections in March. The resolution first cited that the mill currently employs more than 1,000 area residents.
Commissioners said they supported the state in saying that the color standard is purely “an aesthetics concern and not based on scientific evidence.” They pointed out that 22 other states have similar effluent color standards as North Carolina.
“The [EPA’s] proposed color limit requirements appear to single out Evergreen Packaging without the benefit of support from scientific data,” the resolution said.
Disagreeing with the economic argument, however, Taylor alleges that the Canton paper mill even has a chance of saving money by using more efficient methods that also decrease pollution.
“The mill has available affordable technology that are no threat to the mill or jobs,” said Taylor.
Taylor said she was confident that the current permit requires “significantly less” than what is reasonable and best available technology would require, which is precisely what the Clean Water Act calls for.
“The permit limit is so weak,” said Taylor. “It doesn’t require significant progress at all.”