Emotions run high at hearing on paper mill pollution

Two contrasting images of the Pigeon River emerged at a public hearing on a controversial new water pollution permit for Evergreen Packaging, a paper mill in Canton.

The mill needs to renew its state permit to continue drawing roughly 29 million gallons a day from the river, using it in the papermaking process, then dumping it back into the river.

On one side of the divide were mostly raft guides, environmentalists, and Cocke County, Tenn., residents, who insisted the river was filthy and dangerously in need of stricter pollution requirements. They characterized the draft state permit as too weak and demanded a revision.

Meanwhile, the opposing party praised the Pigeon as a success story of past decades, a complete turnaround from its — literally — darker days. This pro-water permit faction, however, focused less on the river than the vast economic impact of the mill in the region and the efforts it has already made to clean up it’s operation.

They stressed that imposing rigid pollution requirements on the mill would be too expensive and could lead to job cuts.

“Everyone knows the advantages and strides that this mill has made over the years and the hundreds of millions of dollars they have invested in environmental issues,” said Haywood County Commissioner Skeeter Curtis. “I ask you, issue the permit. Don’t have restrictions that are not economically affordable to the mill.”

With about 1,400 employees, the mill is a major taxpayer, and supports related business and community organizations.

Mike Clayton, president of Champion Credit Union in Canton, referred to the mill as the “heart and soul” of Canton.

“The ripple effect of the Canton mill pays our mortgages and sends our kids to college,” said Clayton.

Luke Goddard, who serves as a town board member in Newport, Tenn., suspected an economic motive was driving most North Carolinians’ support for the water permit as written.

“What they have done is they’ve sold out the community, and they’ve sold out the river downstream, and they have bought your admiration,” said Goddard. “Sure you think, they’re great people. They’re paying you...What you’ve given us downstream is death, dioxin, chemicals, and you haven’t cleaned any of it up until somebody made you clean it up.”

“It looks a lot to me like money really talking around here,” said Frances Miller of the Cocke County Health Council. “I don’t think money is going to help us all that much once we don’t have any clean water or any clean air. I’d hate to leave that as a legacy to my grandchildren.”

Since 1990, the mill reportedly spent $526 million on an overall environmental overhaul, including about $300 million on the Pigeon River alone. While the river downstream is vastly cleaner now, progress has plateaued in recent years.

“We know the mill has made progress, but we haven’t seen progress in the last ten years,” said Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina. “North Carolina, I have very little faith in you. I’d like you to prove us wrong.”

Most Tennessee speakers said they did not come to the hearing to take jobs away, but to find a common solution that would benefit all who rely on the Pigeon River.

“We’re not here to demand food from your table,” said Raven Carswell. “Only a seat at the table you’ve been feasting at for years. We’re tired of scraps.”

Others pointed to health dangers posed by the Pigeon River because of the mill.

Michelle Cueller said she has contracted a skin irritation known as chemically-induced eczema for life after serving as a raft guide on the Pigeon River for 10 years.

“I can only hope that this is the only health infliction I will face,” said Cueller. “The stinging in your face, eyes burning from the water when you’re getting splashed [are] our facts.”

Joseph Hanks, vice-president of Evergreen Packaging, emphasized that the current owners and leaders of the mill had nothing to do with the “pain of the past.”

“There’s no mill in the world that is more compliant than this mill, so how much is enough?” asked Hanks. “The money is there when the technology is available to reduce the color...At some point, it’s just not fair to keep us from operating just because of the past.”


Stacking the deck

Both sides called in reinforcements while espousing their perspective on the pollution permit. Canton Mayor Pat Smathers called four aldermen from the town to stand behind him as he called for the permit to be granted as written.

“We’re all united in the Town of Canton behind Champion International,” said Smathers, despite the fact that Champion International abandoned the mill in 1997, and the mill is now on its second name change since then.

Smathers asked the other aldermen to speak after him — even though the moderator had not called out their names — then returned to the podium with more remarks, garnering criticism later that night for using up more than his share of time and for going out of turn.

Soon after, a raft guide called up about 20 fellow raft guides to demonstrate how the local economy in eastern Tennessee relies heavily on a healthy Pigeon River.

To that, Haywood County Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick had a quick retort.

“I suppose I could ask everyone impacted by the mill to step in here and they would fill this room,” said Kirkpatrick, adding that the families impacted could fill up the entire gymnasium across the hall.

N.C. Representative Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, pointed out that there has been a vast increase in rafters — from 21,000 in 1995 to 150,000 in 2007 — because of the mill’s expansive cleanup project.

“You’ve got a job because something was done about that river,” said Rapp, raising his voice. “I think you need to pay attention to that.”

Rapp said he agreed there must still be more progress but that the state should also recognize and support the mill’s willingness to use the latest technology to lessen pollution.

Audience members from both sides piped up later as Tennessee resident Peter Morrison blasted Smathers for coming up with his “panoply of alderman.”

“That is not fair,” said Peter Morrison. “They should have come up one at a time, not marching up here like the gangbusters.”

While Morrison spoke, a few attendants yelled out that the many more rafters than aldermen had walked up to the podium, prompting shouts from the other side that Smathers had spoken twice without signing up for two slots.

Morrison sat back down after the moderator told him he was out of order, but not before sneaking in another complaint about having to wait for speakers to walk down the aisle to get to the microphone.

The strangest moment in the night was undoubtedly when Clark Bauer went up to speak. Bauer took off his rafting T-shirt as he announced he was done with the rafting industry and would no longer take anyone to the Pigeon River.

Bauer said the millions spent by the mill on cleaning up the river could never make up for it causing cancer in his family.

“$525 million, where’s my family? I could’ve had more family,” said Bauer, adding that he and many others have received infections from the Pigeon River. Bauer even threatened to pull down his pants to show everyone “the sore on [his] butt.”

The moderator’s only response was, “We don’t want you to do that.”

Canton Mill pursues new pollution permit

Evergreen Packaging, a large paper mill in Canton, is seeking a new water pollution permit for the Pigeon River.

The paper mill sucks 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 — and then dumps it back in the river again.

The river downstream from the mill is far cleaner today than anytime in the mill’s 100-year history. The Pigeon River was once so polluted few fish species could survive and it was unsafe for people to swim in.

During the 1990s, the mill embarked on a $300 million environmental overhaul, spurred partly by expensive lawsuits.

Environmentalists and downstream communities want the mill to make further improvements. But instead, it seems progress has plateaued.

“While the river has gotten cleaner since the 1980s, we can’t allow North Carolina to end the river cleanup until it’s clean and free of odor, foam and significant toxic discharges,” said Chris Carswell, who lives downstream of the mill in Cocke County, Tenn.

But Derric Brown, the director of sustainability for Evergreen, said progress going forward will be measured in much smaller steps than the progress of the past, mostly because of the giant steps already made.

“Incremental improvement is becoming increasingly difficult,” Brown said.

Sergei Chernikov, an environmental engineer in charge of the state permit, said it will take exponentially more effort to make less noticeable improvements as time goes on.

“The law of diminishing returns is in full force,” Chernikov said. “What they are working on now is the remaining 10 percent. It is definitely getting harder with each step. But they are making progress.”

The biggest environmental victory of the 1990s was getting the mill to drastically reduce dioxin, the most toxic chemical discharged into the river. The final health advisory against eating fish caught downstream of the mill was lifted in 2005. Fish once wiped out by the mill’s pollution are being reintroduced in a joint effort between the mill and state wildlife and environmental agencies.

Chernikov called Evergreen the cleanest paper mill in the state and among the cleanest in the world.

“If you look at other facilities throughout the nation and Canada, (Evergreen is) doing much better,” Chernikov said.

Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for NC, disputes that claim, however.

“There is no way this can be called the cleanest paper mill in the world,” Taylor said.

Taylor said the pollution from the mill is all relative to the size of the Pigeon.

“You put an enormous paper mill on a tiny river, it is still a huge amount of pollution being released into a tiny river,” Taylor said.

The mill has faced repeated lawsuits, including class action claims, from downstream landowners in Tennessee over the past two decades. A federal lawsuit by three local landowners from Haywood County was filed this fall, claiming the pollution deprives them of the right to enjoy their property along the river.

The mill’s current pollution permit, dating back to 2001, sets limits on the pollution and mandates water testing on a daily and weekly basis to ensure compliance. The permit expired in 2006. The mill has been operating under an extension while drafting a new permit, which is now up for review.

The mill is operating within state pollution limits on most counts. The current permit allows a variance in two areas: temperature and water color. In the new permit, the mill is again seeking a variance for temperature, but feels a variance for color is no longer necessary.



A major source of contention is steaming water released by the mill into the river, which raises the overall water temperature.

In September 2008, for example, the water taken out the river was 66 degrees on average, but was a piping 93.5 degrees when put back in the river. Even half a mile downstream of the mill, the river was still 11 degrees hotter than it should have been — with a temperature of 66 degrees upstream of the mill compared to 77 degrees downstream.

In the winter, the temperature variance is even more acute, with the discharge twice as hot as the river’s natural state.

“You can actually see the river steaming in the winter,” Taylor said.

The discharges exceed federal and state temperature standards by a long shot, which cap the overall temperature increase at 5 degrees. The mill is allowed to raise the river’s temperature by 25 degrees under the variance in the pollution permit.

Chernikov said the river is hotter for only a short section, however, since side streams are constantly flowing into the river and cooling it back down.

“There will be some impact but whether it is significant or measurable is the question,” Chernikov said.

Brown said the temperature is not hurting water quality.

“There have been studies of the river showing that temperatures is not inhibiting the balance in indigenous populations of fish,” Brown said.

Evergreen uses a massive amount of water to cool its equipment and coal-fired boilers, which make electricity for the mill’s operations. It’s cheaper for the mill to make its own power from coal than to buy it.

Chernikov said the variance for Evergreen is similar to that of power plants in the state. In order to cool the water down before returning it to the river, it would require the costly construction of cooling towers. Cooling towers have a downside as well. They lead to lots of evaporation and less water is returned to the river, decreasing its natural flow, he said.



The upgrades of the ‘90s also reduced the discharge of color, which darkens the river. While marked improvements were made to reduce color, the mill has still required a pollution variance for the color of its emissions.

The new permit would make small improvements in color, eliminating the need for a variance, according to the mill and state environmental officials.

Typically, the lack of a variance is a good sign, indicating the mill is meeting state standards. But that’s not necessarily the case with color, Taylor.

Regulating color discharge is a tricky proposition for the state under its current protocol. The state doesn’t have a hard and fast limit, but instead limits color to an “acceptable” level.

“The color is psychological. For some people it may look fine, for some people it may not,” Chernikov said. “The color is really a very subjective parameter.”

Taylor said the mill agreed to make what she considers undetectable changes to its color discharge and in exchange the state suddenly deeming it within the “acceptable” range — thus no longer requiring a variance.

“They are trying to PR their way out of this variance,” Taylor said. “They are cooking the books to make it sound like they have improved in the past decade but they have not.”

Taylor wants the state to adopt a numerical standard for color.

“Without a numerical color standard, there is no way to tell whether they have met an acceptable color standard,” Taylor said.

But Brown said the subjective measure is appropriate.

“Color is aesthetic,” Brown said. “Different people perceive color differently.”

What’s acceptable in the mountains, where rivers are much clearer, could be much different than what’s acceptable along the coast, where rivers are sometimes black and briny by nature. Taylor said the state could still set numerical standards, however, by using a sliding scale based on the natural color of the river compared to the discharge.

Brown said the color discharged by the mill has no environmental impacts but is purely an aesthetic issue.

Taylor disagrees.

“We say color is an indicator of an adverse chemical soup that includes some toxins,” Taylor said. The less color, the less the overall discharge, and the better off the river is in general, she said.

Water gets tainted with color when flushed over wood fibers. Color leaches out of the pulp and ends up in the discharge that goes back into the river.

The mill proposes to reduce color over the next four years from 42,000 pounds a day allowed under the current permit to 39,000 pounds a day, a step the mill has already achieved. The mill’s goal is to reduce color to 37,000 pounds a day within four years. The improvement is small in comparison to the major reductions made since the late 1980s, when the mill discharged 380,000 pounds of color a day.

Taylor is also dismayed that water would be sampled and monitored less frequently under the new permit. Evergreen does the monitoring itself and submits the stats to state regulators. But Taylor wants testing by an independent third party to spot check the mill’s data.

“This mill has been so controversial for so long it is time for there to be independent testing,” Taylor said, calling for “full transparency.”


Dirty water

An environmental advocacy group Environment North Carolina has just issued a report that analyzes industrial pollution of waterways based on monitoring data from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2007. The report is titled Wasting our Waterways: Industrial Toxic Pollution and the Unfulfilled Promise of the Clean Water Act.

Major findings of the report include:

Blue Ridge Paper Products released 123,856 pounds of toxic chemical waste into the Pigeon River and was the 10th largest reported polluter of toxic chemicals in North Carolina in 2007.

The Pigeon River is ranked 7th in North Carolina for most cancer-causing chemicals, with 10,740 pounds of chemicals linked to cancer discharged by the Blue Ridge Paper Products plant in 2007.


Want to weigh in?

A public hearing on a water pollution permit for the Pigeon River by Evergreen Packaging will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 26, at Tuscola High School in Waynesville.

For more information on how to comment or about the draft permit, go to h2o.enr.state.nc.us/NPDES/documents/BRPPPublicHearing.pdf.

Hope of paper mill job attracts hundreds to ESC

More than 300 people waited in line at the N.C. Employment Security Commission in Waynesville on Monday to submit job applications with Evergreen Packaging, the paper mill in Canton.

Evergreen employs 1,200 workers in Haywood County. The company is not adding new jobs at this time but is merely building up its applicant pool.

“This is actually a routine practice we do once or twice every year to make sure we have a pool of qualified applicants as jobs become available, primarily because of retirements,” said Mike Cohen, spokesperson for Evergreen.

Mark Clasby, Haywood County Economic Development Director, said Evergreen has an older workforce that is retiring.

“So there is a continued need for replacements,” Clasby said.

Evergreen’s last call for applications was in January 2009.

The line seemed longer than usual this time, according to Virginia Gribble, the director of the Employment Security Commission. ESC accepts and processes the applications. Gribble cited the high unemployment in Haywood County, which was 8.5 percent in September.

The long line is likely a sign of the economic times, said Gribble, but it was also a testimony to the quality of employment offered by the paper mill.

“It has been a very good response from the community,” Gribble said. “A lot of people are interested in working there because they are such a good employer.”

Clasby agreed.

“They have been a mainstay here in our community for 100 years and have provided really good jobs over that period of time,” said Clasby.

Entry-level jobs were advertised at $37,500 per year plus health insurance and other benefits.

Many who applied cited a long lineage of family members who have worked at the paper mill.

The Canton factory makes paperboard used in milk and juice cartons and envelope-grade paper. Evergreen also operates a smaller plant in Waynesville where coating is applied to the cardboard.

Homecoming on the Pigeon River

After decades of paper mill pollution, the Pigeon River is coming back to life — literally.

Aquatic biologists embarked on a mission several years ago to restore species that had been wiped out by chemical discharges from the mill. After the paper mill retrofitted its operations to improve water quality, the river was once more capable of supporting many of the species that had been killed off.

It was unlikely the species would migrate back into the river on their own, however, and had to be released by biologists. In some cases, that meant trapping the fish and mollusks from other rivers and creeks. In the case of rarer species, such as the tangerine darter, the fish had to be bred in captivity and then released.

So far, signs are good that the fish released into the river are now reproducing on their own.

The biologists tag all the fish they release, using an injection of medical-grade silicone just under the skin that is visible to the naked eye. The biologists return to the same stretch of river the following year and capture fish.

Any without tags were born in the river, showing that particular species is reproducing. So far, those include the silver shiner, telescope shiner, gilt darter, stripetail darter and mountain brook lamprey.

The severe and persistent drought has complicated the mission, however. Last year, stream flows fell to historically low levels. Fish populations were stressed, and low numbers in spring collections led to postponement of some releases.

The Pigeon River Recovery Project is a partnership of state and federal agencies, industry and private organizations.Major partners include Evergreen paper mill (formerly Blue Ridge Paper), N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Haywood Community College, Haywood Waterways Association, Progress Energy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Conservation Fisheries, the N.C. Division of Water Quality, Western Carolina University.


By the numbers

21,000:    Fish released into Pigeon River

15:    Fish species released

9:    Number of sites where fish were released

221,000:    Native snails released

1,440:    Fish released in Haywood County stretch of Pigeon last year alone

Canton gains ground as mill’s dominance recedes

Things are changing in Canton. That in itself is somewhat newsworthy.

Canton banks, businesses prepare for buyout infusion

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

The town of Canton will experience an infusion of dollars Oct. 12 when Blue Ridge Paper workers get their cash payouts from the company’s Employee Stock Ownership Plan.

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.

Mills new owners have a strong legacy to live up to

When the new owners of the Canton paper mill announced a few weeks ago that company headquarters were being moved to Memphis, it was seen as mostly a footnote to the larger story of Blue Ridge Paper’s sale to the Rank Group of New Zealand. That story of the mill sale became public back in April.

But the move to Memphis is symbolically important in many ways, and at least two of them are worth noting for the potential impact on Haywood County and the region. First, the successful sale of Blue Ridge Paper to the Rank Group was the culmination of what some mill insiders describe as an almost miraculous story of survival, one in which every employee will benefit.

Secondly, the move marks the end of a 100-year tenure of Canton-based mill managers and company executives who cared deeply about their community and their employees. That story is one unique to mill towns, one that is fading into history as the global economy changes the fundamental nature of the manufacturing industry.


A survival story

The impact of the paper mill on Canton and on the region is a story of epic proportions, and entire chapters could be written on its environmental, economic and cultural legacies. Books are already in print on the subject, and it’s very likely that more will be published. But these last eight years have been, perhaps, the most remarkable in the mill’s history.

When Champion announced plans to sell its Canton mill in 1999, the likelihood of closure was high. That would have put nearly 2,000 people out of work. But through community support, especially the work of many regional leaders, a plan was developed. KPS, a New York investment company that was well known for working with unionized companies, provided the cash to buy the mill while workers agreed to a series of pay cuts, wage freezes and benefit reductions. In exchange, the employees got 40 percent of the mill’s ownership and profit sharing.

Over these eight years, the profits have not materialized. Many times it seemed the mill was on the verge of closing, and it had racked up a debt of $213 million by the time of the sale to the Rank Group. Somehow, though, management and workers always found a way to survive. New markets were found. Employee productivity skyrocketed. During an eight-year span when about 100 North American paper mills closed, Blue Ridge held on.

That meant that the 1,100 remaining jobs in Haywood County also survived. And, despite the debt and the gloomy outlook for the industry, a buyer emerged that at least for now plans to keep the mill open. In addition, workers will be able to get somewhere around $20,000 each for the stock they own. The deal may not have worked out as many had hoped, but in the end the jobs are still intact, the mill is in the hands of a growing force in the paper industry, and workers will get a sizeable stock bonus.


Now, a cog in a big wheel

While the last eight years are a story in survival, the move of company headquarters to Memphis marks a turning point in the mill’s 100-year history in Canton. Even though the old Champion International had headquarters elsewhere, there was always the feeling that Canton was a centerpiece, as it was when Reuben Robertson Sr. founded the mill in 1906. When Blue Ridge Paper was formed, it initially decided to locate its headquarters in Asheville but soon came back to Canton.

There has always been a symbiotic relationship between the paper mill, Canton, and all of Haywood County. Mill employees were paid well, and that prosperity brought further benefits to the region as the workers sent children off to college and spent their hard-earned wages on homes and other items that brought prosperity to lthe ocal business community.

Now, as new owners take control, differences are already apparent. The privately held Rank Group won’t be holding press conferences to announce profits and losses, and its executives are reluctant to talk to the media at all. The steadfast support that has been shown to the mill — even when it was being sued by Tennessee residents and cursed by environmentalists for degrading the Pigeon River — was always about more than just the jobs it provided.

The short history of Blue Ridge Paper has come to an end, as did the long story of Champion in 1999. Only the future will tell how Rank — and its umbrella company known as Evergreen — will treat the workers and the community that have embraced the paper mill through decades of controversy and prosperity. We can only hope for the best.

Blue Ridge Paper Products changes name, moves headquarters

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Blue Ridge Paper Products, long one of the largest employers in Western North Carolina, is no longer — at least in name.

An internal memo sent to employees Aug. 24 announced that the company’s name has officially been changed to Evergreen Packaging Group to reflect its new ownership by the New Zealand-based Rank Group.

Mill buyer amasses large share of juice carton market

Mill workers at Blue Ridge Paper Products are optimistic about their future under a new owner.

The buyer, a billionaire from New Zealand named Graeme Hart, has been gobbling up market share in the milk and juice carton industry over the past 18 months. His company, the Rank Group, has grown to the world’s second-largest maker of cardboard drink cartons. Hart has spent more than $5 billion on his forays.

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