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2023 A Look Back: ‘That’s so Metal’ Award

A kayak-view photo looks upstream from the paper mill site in Canton.  A kayak-view photo looks upstream from the paper mill site in Canton. Anna Alsobrook/MountainTrue photo

This one goes to the Pigeon River, due both to the actual metals found in a sampling site along its bank and to the very metal way its fish populations have rebounded after the Canton paper mill shut down in June. 

After 115 years of operation, the mill at the heart of Canton said goodbye to its last shift  of workers June 8 following owner Pactiv Evergreen’s March 6 announcement that the mill was closing for good. The closure was a blow to the region’s culture and economy but a boon to its environmental health. Now, environmental regulators are working to get a handle on what’s needed to clean up the site after more than a century of papermaking. Analysis of a comprehensive sampling event conducted in September is not yet complete, but a preliminary report from sampling conducted on mill property in June revealed that one site, a pit dug along the exposed riverbank, had extremely high levels of several toxic metals . Lead levels were 2,796 times higher than the state standard. Copper was 332 times higher, chromium 21 times higher, nickel 17 times higher, zinc five times higher and arsenic nearly four times higher. Beryllium came in more than 30% above the state limit. The results were expected to be representative of the water-saturated soils beneath the riverbed in that area.

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Despite contamination issues, aquatic life downstream from the mill seems to be rebounding nicely . In July, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission sampled fish populations at three sites downstream from the mill and found double the diversity and 15 times the number of fish as when they sampled the same sites in May, while the mill was still operating.

However, unexplored avenues of study remain. For instance, the research did not investigate whether there is an association between high metal levels and the prevalence of Pigeon River fish wearing long hair and leather jackets.   

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