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Crews continue battling Mill Creek fire

COCKE COUNTY—Cherokee National Forest fire crews continue to fight the Mill Creek Fire in Cocke County. The fire totaled almost 263 acres as of Monday afternoon.

“Rain did help with control efforts,” said Forest Fire Management Officer Trent Girard. “However, we are still concerned about areas that may not have gotten rain and will continue to install containment lines.”

The Mill Creek Fire is in Cocke County along westbound Interstate 40 at mile marker 446 and is approximately 25 percent contained. Crews are working to establish a new containment line along the western side of the fire to minimize the fire’s perimeter.

With the predicted weather forecast, the public can expect to see increased firefighter activity in the area including aircraft. A helitanker will assist with operations by performing water drops along the eastern side of the fire to maintain the containment line.

On Tuesday, April 27, fire crews conducted burnout operations within the perimeter of the fire to secure the containment lines on the northwestern side of the fire.

The fire is being managed jointly by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry (TDF) and the USDA Forest Service Cherokee National Forest.

Visitors are reminded to refrain from using an unauthorized unmanned aerial system (UAS), or drone, over or near a wildfire. Using drones around a wildfire endangers the lives of pilots and firefighters.

For social media updates on the Mill Creek Fire, follow the Tennessee Department of Agriculture on Facebook at @TNAgriculture and on Twitter at @TNAgriculture. For traffic information and potential closures regarding Interstate 40, please visit https://smartway.tn.gov/.

Locals express concerns over renewal of Blue Ridge Paper’s discharge permit

COCKE COUNTY—The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) Division of Water Resources (DWR) recently held a public virtual hearing concerning amendments to Blue Ridge Paper Products’ effluent discharge permit at their Evergreen Packaging Plant.

The permit sets limits and guidelines to the discharge of industrial, storm water, municipal and landfill leachate wastewaters into waters of the state. The Evergreen Plant is located off Highway 215, in Canton, NC to receiving waters designated as the Pigeon River, French Broad River Basin.

Revisions include changes in current monitoring requirements at the Fiberville Bridge and removal of a color variance. North Carolina DWR agrees with the removal of the color variance, based on improved stream conditions noted during a reevaluation, including significant improvements to instream concentrations of color in the Pigeon River. North Carolina DWR concludes the variance is no longer necessary.

Several locals spoke during the hearing expressing their concerns over the renewal of the permit and removal of the color variance.

Many speakers said these measures would be detrimental to communities down river like Hartford.

Amelia Taylor, raft guide and member of Clean Water Expected in East Tennessee (CWEET), said removing the variance would pollute the river further.

“My major concern is over the color variance being removed,” Taylor said.

“The river is still not suitable for full body contact, and the quality is very poor during the summer. Foam becomes concentrated and guides are getting rashes that I’m sure comes from the chemicals in the color. It is not fair to add more pollution each time.”

Deborah Barr, Director of CWEET, said the changes that have occurred over the last 20 years were brought about by community activists, not initiatives put into action by Blue Ridge Paper. She said this is more than the river and economy of Canton and Hartford, it’s about people’s lives.

“We’ve been asking for a lower effluent discharge for 20 years,” Barr said.

“The improvements that have been made wouldn’t have been done if we hadn’t worked so hard. Dioxin is in the clay and fatty tissues of fish in the river. There is a lot of patting on the back over the improvements, but more work needs to be done. This is more important than the river and the economy, it’s people’s lives.”

Charlotte Leibrock, local resident and Election Commission member, discussed the economic impact the plant has had on Newport and Cocke County.

Leibrock said Blue Ridge has focused more on the development of the community in Canton, while dismissing the development of towns downstream.

“The perception of the river has marred the health, beauty and livelihood of Newport,” Leibrock said. “Clean water is the best economic engine. If it were clean here, Newport would have development along the banks and this would be a different place. It’s time for Blue Ridge to do better so people down river can do better.”

Rafting company owner Joe Novotny agreed with all the comments that were made by those that oppose the permit renewal and lifting of the color variance.

He said things need to progress during each permitting process instead of backsliding.

“I believe we need to be more educated on how Evergreen benefits from increasing chloroform discharge and lifting the color variance,” Novotny said.

“The local community in Canton benefits from the mill, but we thrive from using the water downstream. We need to work towards cleaner water every year. We can’t stay the same or move backwards.”

Evergreen officials say that more than $500 million has been spent on environmental improvements since the early 1990s.

They claim that over 90% of contaminants have been removed from the discharge that exits the plant and eventually ends up down river.

Cocke County Mayor Crystal Ottinger was one of many elected officials to participate in the hearing. She did not speak during that time, but released the following statements before the hearing occurred.

“Our local waterways are an essential part of our environment and economy as well as one of our greatest assets. They are too precious to pollute,” said Ottinger.

“Cocke Countians have fought hard for years to ensure that folks downstream of the Papermill have access to a safe and clean river. We cannot go backwards where the health of our waterways are concerned. I have called on multiple advocacy groups, state and federal elected officials and I am calling on each and every citizen of Cocke County.

“I am asking that anyone who is willing to please send in a public comment and demand advancements in the water quality of the Pigeon River. We must do all that we can to protect it.”

Public comments are being received through April 30, 2021. Public comments may be emailed with “Blue Ridge Paper Products” in the subject line to publiccomments@ncdenr.gov.

Comments will be considered in the final determinations of permit issuance and provisions, and variance removal.

Budget Committee reviews Sheriff's Office requests

COCKE COUNTY—The 2021-22 fiscal year budget for the Sheriff’s Office was reviewed by the County Budget Committee Monday afternoon.

C.J. Ball, Chief Deputy, spoke on behalf of Sheriff Armando Fontes during the meeting.

Ball said the office would like to add one deputy, while cutting overtime expenses to pay for the position.

“We would like to add one maintenance of effort position in the form of a new deputy,” Ball said.

“Currently there are 21 deputies in the office with two of them being K9 officers. They are a great asset to the force, but they have 16 hours of required training each month, which leaves us with fewer officers per shift. We have reduced the overtime line for the new year in order to pay for one additional position.”

Committee members were concerned that the reduction in overtime hours would be an issue at the end of the next fiscal year. Ball said the overall figure should be sufficient, and that the office could move funds within the budget to cover any negative balance that may occur.

Adding one deputy would allow the office to add an additional deputy to each shift to better cover the county.

The communication line item for the office featured an increase to help cover the costs of laptops and software for deputies’ patrol cars.

The new laptops will allow deputies to file reports remotely while on shift. Ball said this would save mileage and fuel as deputies currently return to the office to file reports after each incident.

Many of the line items in the Sheriff’s budget remained the same as the previous year. Other increases that have been made will cover step raises and insurance increases for deputies.

The budget for the County Jail also falls under the purview of Sheriff Fontes.

A request has been made for eight additional corrections officers for the new fiscal year.

The sheriff makes this request each year because state officials say this is the number needed to adequately staff the jail.

Commissioner Norman Smith said it may be possible to add four positions in the new year. He asked Finance Director Heather McGaha to prepare a budget line that features half of the needed positions.

McGaha said each position adds roughly $34,000 to the budget once insurance and benefits are included.

Ball said that any additional manpower would be appreciated as it would lift some of the stress that corrections officers face each shift.

If no positions are added, the budget for the jail will be the same as the current fiscal year with the exception of insurance increases and step raises.

Committee members briefly discussed the budget for the County Recreation Department.

The most recent version submitted for the committee to review featured an overall increase of $75,000 for fiscal year 2021-22. The committee has asked Recreation Board members to attend the budget meeting scheduled for May 4 to discuss the increases.

The committee has planned to hold a joint meeting with the County Finance Committee on May 27 to present budget proposals for the new year.

The committee will meet again on Monday, May 3 at 4 p.m. in the Chancery Courtroom of the Courthouse Annex.