Upstream Battle Over Polluted River. Job layoffs at issue in cleanup of Pigeon River along North Carolina-Tennessee border. ENVIRONMENT
AFTER 80 years, two lawsuits, and a spectacular outpouring of public emotion, pollution from Champion International's giant paper mill here may soon be sharply curtailed. But no one in this Appalachian town is celebrating: 1,000 high-paying jobs may go too. Since 1908, the mill has dumped its waste into the Pigeon River, which flows dark, toxic, and malodorous down through impoverished communities in eastern Tennessee.Skip to next paragraph
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Early this year, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials announced that they would require the mill to comply with Tennessee water quality standards as mandated in the Clean Water Act. But Champion has long maintained that the 80-year-old plant is technologically unable to meet the standards for water color without downsizing, at a cost of some 1,000 jobs.
Coming soon after the new Bush administration has pledged its commitment for a cleaner environment, the developments on the Pigeon River are a fresh reminder of the kind of hard choices that will have to be made before the earth's environment is truly clean.
The largest employer in western North Carolina, Champion has an annual payroll of $100 million at the Canton mill, where one-third of all the nation's paper for milk and juice cartons and about a quarter of all paper for envelopes are made.
In addition to 1,800 workers in Canton (pop. 4,800), the Champion mill supports thousands of spinoff jobs in saw-mills., chain saw manufacturing plants, truck dealerships, banks, and stores. By Appalachian standards, the mill is virtually a gold mine.
``I hate that it messes up the river. But you've got to think about throwing all those people out of their jobs,'' says Chris Stevens, whose father and two brothers work for Champion and who had hoped to work for the company himself when he got out of college. ``Shops will close. Banks will close.''
Beulah Baptist Church, where Mr. Stevens is a deacon, recently borrowed $82,000 to build a sanctuary, after 10 years of holding services in a basement. ``Now how can we pay that money off if people lose their jobs?'' he worries.
But downstream in Tennessee, there are few jobs to lose. ``Industries don't want to locate here because of the smell,'' says Charles Moore, executive of Cocke County, where unemployment averaged 14 percent last year.
``We can't use the Pigeon for agricultural purposes because of the dioxin. We don't build homes on the Pigeon, and we have beautiful sites for homes.''
The brown, foam-flecked river runs right through Newport, Tenn. (pop. 8,000), but municipal authorities pump drinking water six miles over a mountain rather than try to remove the toxins and dark color from the Pigeon.
None but the poorest mountain people risk eating Pigeon River fish.
Tennessee has protested the fouling of the river since 1912, says Gay Webb, a hardware store owner in Newport and vice president of Newport's citizens' action group, the Dead Pigeon River Council.
But for most of that time, the protests were ignored. North Carolina officials, required under the Clean Water Act of 1972 to regulate industrial pollution, wrote what was literally a permit to pollute for the giant mill.
Finally, in 1983, Tennessee sued North Carolina over the condition of the river and asked the Environmental Protection Agency for help.
What followed has become one of the most complex and controversial cases EPA has faced in recent years. Involving two states with different standards, constituencies and priorities, the dispute has provided a foretaste of what might well lie ahead in other places as the world tries to solve cross-border environmental conflicts.