“The river at that time was absolutely jet black,” said Moore, now the western regional director for MountainTrue. “There would often be big, huge blocks of foam floating on it.”
That pollution was due to Blue Ridge Paper in Canton, a paper mill currently owned by Evergreen Packaging. In operation since 1908, it employs about 1,500 people. The factory receives pine and hardwood chips via train and truck shipments and processes them into pulp for paper or paperboard production.
The river looks a lot better these days than it did when Moore was a college student. Since 1990, Evergreen Packaging has spent more than $500 million on environmental improvements, reducing its total discharge by one-third and color discharge by more than 90 percent. Fish consumption advisories, which had previously been the rule rather than the exception, were lifted one by one in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and now not a single fish consumption advisory is in effect on the Pigeon River.
The mill’s wastewater discharge permit has been an important mechanism for moving that positive change forward, and this year the permit is set to be renewed for the first time since 2010.
The 2010 renewal was a controversial process that resulted in a lawsuit from the Southern Environmental Law Center, filed on behalf of five different environmental groups and the government of Cocke County, Tennessee. The suit was settled in 2012 with no admission of guilt from Evergreen but with some new terms added to the permit.
Discharge permits must be renewed every five years, but it’s now been nearly six since the mill’s last permit expired. The delay was the result of holdups on the regulatory end of things, said N.C. Division of Water Resources spokesperson Anna Gurney — the mill submitted its application for permit renewal within 180 days of the 2010 permit’s expiration date as required, meaning that the existing permit remains valid until a new one is issued.
The permit’s complexity required extensive negotiations between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the mill, and recent changes to variance regulations meant that the department had to learn and follow a new process, Gurney said. Additionally, the pandemic caused delays.
The public hearing was originally scheduled for Jan. 20 — the same day as the presidential inauguration — but got pushed back to 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 14, with the window for written comments open through April 30. The hearing was delayed at the request of the State of Tennessee because their legislators would not have been able to attend Jan. 20, Gurney said. Due to federal and state public notice requirements, April 14 was the earliest opportunity to reschedule. The department expects to issue a new permit in May.
The mill has come a long way since the ‘90s, Moore said, but MountainTrue’s priority is to ensure that environmental quality remains on an upward trajectory. She believes that the permit’s proposed requirements won’t accomplish that goal.
“The main message is now that things are quasi-good, people are rafting on the river and it seems so much better, we don’t want there to be backsliding now,” she said. “We don’t want leniency to develop. People get lulled into thinking that everything is OK and it’s always going to be OK, but part of the reason it is OK now and better now is because organizations and people and churches and even state governments in the case of Tennessee have gotten involved with these permitting processes and made sure that the limits on the plant were going to make things better.”
The mill believes the permit should be issued as written, citing years of work with state and federal regulatory agencies since submitting its renewal application on Dec. 31, 2014.
“Besides the economic impact to Western North Carolina, the Canton Mill is a critical part of a supply chain that provides renewable packaging for milk, juice and other beverages,” said mill spokesperson Erin Reynolds. “We are proud of our environmental performance and remain committed to both the community and the environment.”
When water is discharged from the mill after production and treatment, it is generally warmer than the naturally cool water of the Pigeon River, whose mountain headwaters originate in the same county as the mill itself. Aquatic organisms depend on a certain temperature range to survive, so allowing mill discharge to heat the river too much would damage the ecology.
Since 1985, the mill has been operating under a variance — approved by the EPA — that allows it to discharge water at higher temperatures than would otherwise be allowed. According to a fact sheet from the DWR, the variance was granted after data showed that loosened limits would still keep the water cool enough for the river’s fish, shellfish and wildlife to survive and propagate.
The 2010 permit tightened existing temperature restrictions on the mill, reducing the allowable temperature difference between upstream and downstream monitoring locations from 25 degrees Fahrenheit to 15.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Following the 2012 settlement, the mill agreed to make that calculation based on a weekly average rather than using a monthly average, as it had before.
MountainTrue is calling for the state to require a daily average instead.
“There was a big fish kill in the summer of 2007 from an extremely hot discharge from the mill, and it wasn’t actually a permit violation because their limits rely on a monthly average,” said Moore. “And so, that allows for you to have a really hot temperature day.”
Since 2007, the allowable temperature difference has been tightened, the average has moved from a monthly to a weekly average, and there haven’t been any major fish kills. However, said MountainTrue’s French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson, the proposed permit conditions would not prevent such a kill from happening again, given the “perfect storm” of heat and drought.
“There will be another drought for sure in the future,” he said. “When that happens, it would definitely be a ripe opportunity for that to happen again.”
“Blue Ridge Paper believes the weekly average is protective of aquatic life in the river,” she said.
Gurney added that Blue Ridge Paper’s wastewater does not fluctuate significantly in temperature and pointed out that a 2014 University of Tennessee study indicated that the portion of the river below the plant contains a “balanced and indigenous population of fish and macroinvertebrates.”
For years, Blue Ridge Paper used a chlorine-based bleaching process that resulted in dioxins, a group of chemicals that are highly toxic to people and animals, being released to the river. The mill has been chlorine-free since 1990, and the fish consumption advisories placed in the late 1980s due to dioxin contamination have been lifted.
But the toxins still persist, albeit at much-reduced levels. That’s why MountainTrue opposes a provision of the proposed permit that would reduce the amount of required dioxin sampling from three times per five-year permit period to once in five years. An additional round of sampling would be triggered if the initial sample showed a violation of the standard.
“There’s still dioxin in fish tissue, and so we don’t think that three times in five years is onerous,” said Moore. “They’re proposing to just reduce it to one time in five years, and until we’re not detecting any dioxin in fish tissue, let’s not reduce the sampling level, is our position.”
Moore also pointed out that, while the draft language would require sampling to occur once during the five-year permit period, the 11-year gap between the 2010 permit and the current process shows that the single sample could have to suffice for significantly more than five years.
“There could be many times when we go for years without data,” said Moore.
While the proposed permit would require fish tissue sampling just once in five years, the mill would have to continue monitoring its discharge for dioxin on an annual basis. Dioxin has not been detected in the mill’s discharge since 1989, she said.
The mill is responsible for bearing the cost of monitoring activities required under the permit. Fish tissue dioxin sampling involves catching fish in Waterville Reservoir, packing them in ice and sending them to a lab for analysis — each round of sampling costs about $50,000.
“EPA did intensive high-volume sampling of the water in the Pigeon River and the lake in 2014 and did not find any dioxin in excess of allowable limits in the Pigeon River,” said Reynolds.
The proposed permit would loosen the limit on discharge of chloroform in order to mirror current EPA guidelines. A chemical that easily dissolves in water, chloroform can affect the central nervous system, liver and kidneys, with potential but unproven links to reproductive issues, birth defects and cancer.
The 2010 permit allowed chloroform discharges of up to 5.1 pounds per day as a monthly average or 8.6 pounds per day as a daily maximum — the proposed 2021 permit would increase those limits to 6.27 pounds per day as a monthly average or 10.5 pounds per day as a daily maximum.
“If the plant has been able to meet — and it’s our understanding that they have been meeting — the stricter limits, why should we change them?” asked Moore.
However, said Gurney, it’s important to point out that chloroform discharge from the mill is already well below the existing standard. The water quality limit for chloroform is 60 micrograms per liter, and typically the mill has been discharging less than 3.5 micrograms per liter with an average chloroform concentration in the discharge of 1.75 micrograms per liter, she said.
“The Canton Mill intends to comply with the regulatory limits in the permit,” said Reynolds. “The wastewater treatment plant and state certified operators who run the plant will continue to manage mill and City of Canton wastewaters to within permit limits, including a factor for safety.”
Over the last 10 years, the mill’s record on adhering to the terms of its permit has not been perfect, especially when it comes to limits for fecal coliform, a group of bacteria that includes E. coli.
Between August 2013 and September 2018, the mill received 14 notices of violation for exceeding the fecal coliform standard, with MountainTrue’s record review turning up at least 25 such violations over the past decade — sometimes in excess of 250 times the safe limit.
“They’ve been violating their current permit in terms of fecal coliform, and the wastewater treatment plant needs upgrades,” said Moore. “And so we’re just taking this opportunity to say to the state, ‘Hey, you need to work on this and stay on this and not let them keep violating the fecal coliform standard.”
The state is working on it, said Gurney, and so is the mill.
Reynolds said that the fecal coliform contamination comes from Town of Canton wastewater, which the mill treats at no charge — an unusual arrangement stemming from Canton’s origin as a company town — and that recent changes to the system should reduce future contamination.
Violations were due to issues with Canton’s pretreatment chlorination system, said Reynolds, and the town has hired engineers and consultants to improve the chlorination system’s performance.
“In 2020, Blue Ridge Paper completed a project to change the flow of a wastewater stream, which should improve the performance of the Town’s chlorination system and significantly reduce occurrences,” she said.
“Responding to and addressing fecal coliform exceedances at this facility necessitates a collaborative approach coupled with an in-depth understanding of wastewater chemistry and engineering,” Gurney added. “DWR has applied a tiered enforcement strategy in response to the fecal coliform exceedances and violations.”
It has now been about two years since the last fecal coliform violation, which occurred in February 2019.
Four other permit violations occurred between August 2013 and September 2018 — one for violating the biochemical oxygen demand limit, one for violating the total suspended solids limit and two for violating the color limit.
“The mill from time-to-time experiences upset conditions as a result of such things as power disruption, upset operations, equipment failure, weather and other non-normal conditions, not unlike a household or other businesses,” said Reynolds. “Occasionally these situations result in violations to the permit. When these occur, we immediately report these to the agency and take steps to minimize the impact to the community and the environment. We are constantly reviewing and improving our systems to minimize these types of conditions from impacting our process and thus our potential for non-compliance situations.”
Under the proposed permit, the state would remove a color variance that has since 1988 allowed the mill to impact the river’s color more than would otherwise be allowed under state law. That’s a change to applaud, said Moore.
“This is one of the ways where the mill really has improved over time,” she said. “The color is 100 percent better than it used to be.”
Since 1990, the mill has spent $526 million on environmental process improvement, and this has significantly reduced its impact to the river’s color. While in 1988 the mill emitted 380,000 pounds per day in average color loading, today that number is 36,000 pounds per day. A unique technology the mill developed called the bleach filtrate recycling process, which removes color from discharge, was a major accomplishment. Equipment to implement the technology was installed in 1998 at a cost of $30 million.
Currently, the mill’s color variance imposes a limit of 50 color units at the North Carolina-Tennessee state line, located about 40 river miles below the discharge. However, monitoring between 2014 and 2018 showed that the site was averaging 21 color units and that the river at Fiberville Bridge, which is 0.4 miles below the mill’s discharge, averaged 41 color units.
Based on this information, the mill determined it would be able to comply with normal state rules regarding color and did not need the variance anymore. With the variance removed, the mill will be required to keep the average difference in color units between Fiberville Bridge and the state line to 50, as long as the river flow is at or above 129 cubic feet per second.
An online public hearing at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 14, will take input on terms of a proposed wastewater permit for Blue Ridge Paper in Canton.
The permit, expected to be issued in May, would be in effect through at least May 2026. Due to delays with the regulatory agencies, the mill has been operating on an extension of its current permit, issued in 2010, since 2015.
Citizens can give oral comments during the April 14 meeting and also have the option of submitting written comments before the April 30 deadline.
For more information, including registration for the April 14 hearing and links to the proposed permit, visit bit.ly/cantonpermit.