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State says mill discharge does not require public notification

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

A clean water advocacy group is questioning why an accidental discharge of a paper-making byproduct into the Pigeon River by the former Blue Ridge Paper mill hasn’t been the subject of more scrutiny.

A computer malfunction on Sept. 16 at the Evergreen Packaging Group plant in Canton caused a byproduct known as “black liquor” to flow into the river from the company’s wastewater treatment plant for 30 minutes. The substance reportedly turned the river black and foamy, and sparked phone calls to the Division of Water Quality from concerned residents, according to DWQ environmental specialist Keith Haynes.

Though calls came in from citizens wondering why the river looked odd in appearance, the only public confirmation of the incident came four days after it happened when it was reported in an article in The Mountaineer.

The DWQ, however, wasn’t required to issue any notice to the public, it says, because Evergreen has a permit to discharge treated effluent into the Pigeon River. While the discharge may have exceeded what the permit allows, it did go through the mill’s treatment system, so the public didn’t have to be notified.

Representatives from the Asheville-based Clean Water for North Carolina were surprised they hadn’t heard about the incident when they were contacted by a reporter. The group issued a press release in response to the incident.

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“It’s really upsetting to me that DWQ would go out and say it turns the river black and there was foam, and DWQ is not even expected to issue a notice of violation. They’re not even thinking about doing that, and they’ve clearly violated water quality standards,” said Clean Water spokesperson Gracia O’Neill.

Clean Water Executive Director Hope Taylor said the black liquor discharge exemplifies the weakness of Evergreen’s discharge permit standards. The permit is based on an average annual discharge, leaving much room to pollute a lot on one day and still get away with it, Taylor said.

“The permit is so weak that it doesn’t give us much in the way of enforcement materials. Without reasonable daily limits, it doesn’t give us the tools to prevent this,” said Taylor.

In the most basic form, the release of black liquor into the river from the wastewater treatment plant was equivalent to an excess release of color, according to DWQ reginal supervisor Roger Edwards. DWQ officials who checked out the situation concluded that the substance didn’t pose a threat to humans or wildlife.

“If there had been a perception that this was dangerous to people or to animals in any way, certainly there would have been broader notification, but this was not the case,” said Susan Massengale, spokesperson for the Division of Water Quality’s state office.

Since black liquor isn’t thought to be toxic, DWQ is saying the issue is really more aesthetic than public-health related.

“Mostly when you’re talking about color, you’re talking about an aesthetic situation. It’s not really a human or animal health issue,” Massengale said.

Taylor, though, disagrees that black liquor doesn’t have harmful effects.

“It definitely interferes in the long term with photosynthesis and food supply for the fish. It’s not like it’s chemically innocuous,” she said.

This week, DWQ officials still couldn’t say how many gallons of black liquor were released into the river. They won’t do anything different to monitor the status of how the spill may have affected the Pigeon, since they have a monitoring system in place already. In fact, DWQ probably won’t know any further information about the accidental release until late next month, after Evergreen’s monthly monitoring report is sent to Raleigh for review, Edwards said. At that time, it’s possible a notice of violation could be issued if it’s found Evergreen exceeded its discharge limit.

Evergreen Packaging didn’t return calls for comment on the issue. Evergreen isn’t responsible for issuing a public notice when they have a malfunction such as this one at their Canton plant, though the former owners of the mill — Blue Ridge Paper — often provided the public with explanations about irregularities in the river. Evergreen purchased the plant in July.

Jen Meade, a former raft guide on the Pigeon River who owns a restaurant along the river in Hartford, Tenn., said she wonders what Evergreen’s lack of notification to the community might mean.

“If they are so cavalier and uncommunicative during their first few months in operations, it doesn’t bode well for the future of this company with the communities downstream,” Meade said.

The Division of Water Quality, though, contended that Evergreen is cooperating to the level the state expects.

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