Activists demand a cleaner Pigeon from Blue Ridge

By Julia Mrchant • Staff Writer

A decades-long battle between advocates for a clean Pigeon River and the Canton-based company Blue Ridge Paper Products reared its head last week at a rally where several groups called for further clean-up of the river, which some have referred to as “the dirty bird” due to its pollution levels.

The June 8 rally in Hartford, Tenn. — located just across the N.C.-Tenn. border — featured various regionally known speakers, including representatives from the Dead Pigeon River Council and Clean Water Expected for East Tennessee. The timing of the event was prompted by the fact that Blue Ridge Paper’s permit “variance,” which sets limits on the pollution the company can release into the river, is currently going through a renewal process.

Speakers and residents discussed issues such as the impact the Pigeon River has had on the local economy.

“Pollution kills so slowly that you can’t see it — pollution killed Hartford,” said Gay Webb, a local resident who has lived in the area his entire life.

Webb said he can remember years ago when the local elementary school was forced to shut its windows in the hotter months due to the river’s smell, and can recall when toxic foam on the river “would float down it two- to three-feet deep.”

Dead Pigeon River Council member and East Tennessee State University professor Jamie Branam Kridler echoed that sentiment.

“Jobs are scarce, and people are leaving — if you’ve got an education, you’re not here,” naming the ongoing pollution of the Pigeon River as “a huge, if not primary, contributor to that situation.”

Blue Ridge Paper’s Bob Williams, the director of regulatory affairs, said in a telephone interview that the company has gone to great lengths to clean up the Pigeon. Blue Ridge employs some of the newest technology available, which “has resulted in a river that is now determined to be healthy, and does not pose a public health threat to anyone. We are committed to continuing to improve upon the record that we have established,” Williams said.

Recent efforts have also been taken to re-introduce native species back into the Pigeon River. According to Steve Fraley, an aquatic specialist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, eight species of fish have been successfully introduced on the Tennessee side of the Pigeon and six species have adapted back to the waters in North Carolina. A 20-year advisory against consuming fish from the Pigeon River was lifted in January.

“The bottom line is the river has improved tremendously since Champion (the former owner of the mill) started doing their improvements to the wastewater system. Blue Ridge has done a great job of continuing that work,” Fraley said.


Too little, too late

But to residents who have seen their lives affected negatively by the Pigeon River, the company’s efforts appear too little and too late in coming.

“The economic impact has been devastating to this community,” Webb said. “Cocke County is one of the poorest in the state, and the river is the cause of that.”

Though some called for an end to any variance for Blue Ridge Paper, Environmental Ethics Professor John Nolt from the University of Tennessee suggested an approach based on compromise.

“What we’re asking is for them to use state of the art technology and achieve close to zero emissions — we’re asking them to go the rest of the way,” Nolt said.

Williams said Blue Ridge submitted an application to renew its permit in spring 2006, and at this point in the process is in a regulatory review under the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of North Carolina.

Though Pigeon River advocates claim the permit is almost six months overdue, Williams said the company expects it to be re-issued by the end of the year.

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