A clean river for tourism or jobs for a mill town?

AT first it sounds like an old story: A paper mill pollutes the river; downstream residents launch a clean-our-river campaign; the mill threatens to close if restrictions are enforced; employees organize a save-our-jobs campaign. But the drama between a Champion International paper mill in western North Carolina and its downstream Tennessee neighbors over the Pigeon River is no ordinary economics-versus-environment debate. The Tennesseans who will testify against Champion at public hearings just rescheduled from Oct. 31 until January are not rich people desiring a pretty river - they're poor people looking for jobs. The restrictions Champion opposes have never been forced on a US paper mill. And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), listening to both sides, must decide what to do about the company's discharge permit for a river too rank to ignore.

Just 20 miles after it emerges as a gurgly mountain stream from two wilderness areas, the river is a startling cola color and smells like a photographic lab. Winding through a wooded Smoky Mountain gorge, it's diluted by five mountain creeks but still looks dark and foamy when it reaches Newport, Tenn. - a river town with a Millstone Inn, a Stokely Memorial Library, a lot of two-tone pickup trucks, and an odd smell.

But ``that's the way it's always been,'' Newport residents have said, until this past December when environmental groups won a major victory. Under the Clean Water Act of 1972, the EPA delegates the power to grant industry discharge permits to 37 states. Unsatisfied with North Carolina's permit for the Champion mill in Canton, the EPA, in an unprecedented move, revoked the state's permit power. A federal judge upheld their right to do so.

The news did not escape Nelson Ross and Bob Seay, who were sitting in Newport's Cracker Barrel restaurant with their morning coffee. A clean river might bring tourists and small industry, they reasoned. Cocke County, Tenn., has the state's highest unemployment rate; the high school is not even accredited. Less than an hour from the rich tourist town of Gatlinburg, Tenn., they know the potential of the recreation trade.

The two founded the Dead Pigeon River Council to rally locals to the cause. In March, they sponsored a Media Day, arousing speeches from state senators and congressmen. Later, Newport children were organized with clean-river poster, essay, and banner contests. The entire town turned out for the Memorial Day parade, which ended with children throwing flowers in the river. There have been a Brown River Float, a Fishing Contest (nothing was caught), and a Labor Day letter-writing campaign (providing travelers with coffee and a pre-written note to the EPA).

But Champion's Canton mill will not be easily redesigned, even with impassioned economic speeches.

For one thing, it's 79 years old. When the mill was built, poverty-stricken Appalachian people were thankful for jobs. They looked the other way when 10-foot mountains of foam poured into the river and layers of soot had to be scraped from employees' cars.

As governmental restrictions were passed and treatment technology developed, the mill improved. Champion has spent $47 million on air pollution control for Canton since 1973, $23 million on water quality since 1960.

The town of Canton rests in the middle of a narrow mountain valley; the gargantuan mill squats between blocks of bars and grocery stores downtown. Most of the workers who sit with their sandwiches at the shift change have fathers and grandfathers who worked in the mill. Champion is the largest employer in North Carolina west of Winston-Salem, spends $187 million in the state, and supports 2,200 families.

``I'm sick and tired of hearing about the bad of this mill,'' said David Hipp, a fourth-generation mill worker. ``It built this town.''

Neither Mr. Hipp nor his two brothers, who also work at the mill, believe that the company is bluffing about its threat to close the mill. But the EPA, which works under a permit system that disallows for ``widespread economic impact,'' does. ``It's, well - despicable,'' said Bruce Barrett, EPA director of Water Management in Atlanta.

J. Oliver Blackwell, vice-president/operations manager of the Canton mill, gets annoyed when people point out Champion's healthy stock and profit margins. If a company owns five convenience stores, he reasons, and one starts doing very poorly, it will be sold. They don't all need to make equal profits, but they all need to make some.

Whether or not it's a tactic, the threat to close, repeated often in the local news media, has had effect. A sign at the Canton Gulf Station says, ``We support Champion.'' When a sixth-grade teacher in Canton tried to use the controversy to show her students how democracy works, the superintendent tore down clean-water posters her class had made. The Haywood County (N.C.) Economic Development Commission joined the fray by printing bumper stickers and running ads in the local media declaring, ``Our River, Our Jobs, Our Future.''

Both sides point out that Champion is, in part, dealing with history. The Canton mill was built on a small, naturally clear river, unlike the large, dark coastal rivers usually chosen for mill sites. ``If we were choosing a site for a plant of this size and scale today, we wouldn't even consider Canton,'' said Mr. Blackwell.

To remove the ``glue'' that holds wood fiber together, Champion uses a chlorine bleach, which leaches the dark brown tannins and lignins from the wood. Treatment removes much of the toxicity and solid waste and adds oxygen to effluent, but the dark color remains. This dark effluent limits light penetration in the river, devastating plant life and fish populations.

But no paper mill in the United States has yet been forced to do anything about color. And if Champion is, word will get around the regulatory community. ``If we require Champion [to remove color], it has implications for Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, the Northwest, wherever a paper mill sits on a clear river,'' said Mr. Barrett.

The states, the company, and the EPA also argue about how much good removing color will do. On Barrett's desk are two stones from the Pigeon River: One is coated with a black, tarlike substance, the other, a similar stone cleaned up, is a light blue and white river rock. Although the effluent could be reduced ``from cola to ginger ale'' color, it would take years, Barrett said, for the black coating to wear off the rocks.

Until the public hearings, Barrett and his employees at the EPA will be wading through thousands of letters from Champion and Pigeon River supporters and the ever-increasing stack of technological information submitted by Champion on the subject of color.

Champion officials muster a convincing argument - they are already planning to switch to an oxide-bleach process that will greatly reduce color - but the Tennesseans have a case ``even a third-grader can understand,'' as Cindie Runnion, a Newport native, puts it. Upstream from the mill is a sparkling stream; downstream is a malodorous mess.

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