Water advocacy groups in Tennessee are hoping to bring attention to a renewal of a controversial wastewater permit that is being proposed for the large paper mill along the Pigeon River in Canton, NC known as Blue Ridge Paper Products.

The groups say that the new draft permit, which is overdue for its renewal, calls for “no improvements to water quality and in fact could stall out progress altogether as the state of NC is calling to remove the ‘color variance’ a technical designation that shows that water quality standards are not being within the state”, said Deborah Bahr, director of Clean Water Expected in East TN (CWEET).

The state of Tennessee lists the Pigeon River as ‘impaired’ due to color, foam, taste, and smell from the mills toxic discharge for the first 5 miles downstream of the TN/NC state line at Waterville into Hartford, TN, a popular spot for both commercial and recreational whitewater rafting attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to its Class III rapids every year.

The paper mill opened in 1906 and has had a long and controversial history of polluting the Pigeon River. Pollution levels got to a point that earned it the moniker the “dead pigeon river’ in the 1980’s by locals who became grassroots activists after living along its long troubled shores. Years down the road it shortened to its current nickname the “Dirty Bird” known widely amongst private and commercial boaters who run the same polluted stretch of whitewater just downstream of the TN/NC state line.

A review of the current and the draft permit shows discharges of various chemicals such as chloroform, adsorbable organic halides, and different types of phenols and catechols that are shown to be carcinogens and cause toxic health impacts to humans and wildlife. Additionally the new draft permit requests that the paper mill be allowed to increase the amount of water they take from 29 million gallons per day to 34 million gallons per day, a 17% increase in water usage.

Laurie Duckett, an organizer for CWEET, told reporters that “the Clean Water Act which created monitoring requirements for these pollution permits called for continued reduction of toxic discharges until they are completely eliminated through each permitting cycle.”

“This permit simply does not do that. If you read over the permit you can see that they are proposing to dump more pollutants into the Pigeon River. North Carolina’s attempt to remove the color variance shows that they simply want to be done with making improvements to water quality on the Pigeon River. This is not in the spirit of the Clean Water Act which called for pollution reductions until they are eliminated.”

While revenue from the whitewater rafting industry in Cocke County has grown remarkably over the last decade, improvements to water quality have apparently stalled out according to Amelia Taylor, a river guide who works on the Pigeon River. “I became a river guide a decade ago so that I could show people the pollution on the Pigeon River hoping that we could muster the political pressure to get the river cleaned up. Here we are 10 years later, and the permit looks almost the same as last time, except they want to take more water than before and they want to get rid of the color variance, which is the last remaining acknowledgment that water quality standards are still not being met.

“As someone who has an intimate relationship with the Pigeon River and many other rivers in our region, I can tell you that the water in the Pigeon is gross, brown, foamy and smelly. I find that water on the Pigeon really lacks the cleanliness compared to other waterways that I recreate on and have worked on as a commercial river guide. The Pigeon truly is a dirty bird.”

Axel Ringe, who serves on the Water Quality Committee of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club stated that “It’s unfortunate that the state of North Carolina is more interested in protecting the profits of Blue Ridge Paper Products than they are in protecting the waters and people downstream from the paper plant. The technology exists to clean up discharges from the plant, but the company is not interested in investing in it.”

The North Carolina Division of Environmental Quality will be accepting and considering public comments regarding the permit until January 29, 2020. An online public hearing, which attendees who intend to speak must pre-register for, will occur on January 20 at 6 p.m.

Anyone who lives alongside, works on, owns business near, or recreates along the Pigeon River is encouraged to submit comments regarding their own experiences with water quality along the Pigeon as well as comments regarding the upcoming wastewater discharge permit to the NC Division of Environmental Quality: (must include Blue Ridge Paper Products, NC #0000272 in the email subject line) publiccomments@ncdenr.gov or snail mail at Wastewater Permitting, Attn: Blue Ridge Paper Products Permit, 1617 Mail Service Center Raleigh, NC 27699

Links to the draft permit and talking points can be found at cweet.org

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