Press Release | July 23, 2010

Downstream Users and River Advocates Challenge Paper Mill Permit

Downstream users and river advocates today challenged a North Carolina Division of Water Quality wastewater permit that fails to require adequate reductions in color and thermal pollutants being discharged by the Blue Ridge Paper Products mill into the Pigeon River in Haywood County, North Carolina, about 40 miles from the Tennessee border.

The N.C. permit allows the paper mill to discharge wastewater into the Pigeon River that raises the temperature of the river beyond the limits allowed by state water quality standards. In 2007, the death of at least 8000 fish near the paper mill was attributed to high water temperatures. Despite the threat that heated plant wastewater poses to fish and other aquatic life in the river, the permit only sets a monthly average temperature limit as measured nearly half a mile downstream, but sets no limits on daily fluctuations, and thus allows temperature spikes that can significantly exceed state temperature standards.

The coalition also challenged the adequacy of improvements to the discoloration of the river allowed by the permit. They argue that the discoloration of the Pigeon River and pollutants from the plant harm other enterprises that rely on a healthy river, including recreational fishing, boating, and related tourism.

The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the challenge today in the North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings in Raleigh on behalf of Clean Water Expected for East Tennessee, Clean Water for North Carolina, Cocke County, Tennessee, the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, Tennessee Conservation Voters, Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association and Western North Carolina Alliance.

Comments from these groups follow.

“North Carolina failed to require real progress in restoring the river’s health and downstream recreational uses,” said Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina, which led a 2001 joint study for process improvements at the mill. Instead of requiring water improvements “at the quickest possible pace,” as required by a historic 1997 Settlement Agreement with the mill, Taylor points out, “this permit prolongs a 102-year injustice by failing to mandate feasible steps towards restoring the river.”

“The discoloration of the river as well as the levels of pollutants make the river less desirable for recreational fishermen and boaters than other, less polluted rivers nearby,” Iliff McMahan, Jr., Mayor of Cocke County, Tennessee explains. “Citizens downstream from the plant are being deprived of high quality recreational experiences, as well as a healthy environment to develop their businesses and raise their families, because the paper mill refuses to take steps to clean up the Pigeon River. We feel the permit’s terms do not represent meaningful progress under the 1997 settlement agreement or the Clean Water Act of 1972. And for us, after 102 years of continuous pollution from this paper mill, that is not acceptable.”

“The high temperatures and temperature fluctuations allowed under the new permit will not ensure safeguards are in place to prevent future fish kills,” said Hartwell Carson, French Broad RiverKeeper with WNCA.

“Additional improvement could be achieved with existing technology and without serious consequences to the local economy,” said Amelia Taylor of Clean Water Expected in East Tennessee. “We know that process changes to improve the paper mill’s discharges are feasible and affordable. The EPA and the mill’s own consultants have studied them, and the resistance to implementing them is unjustified.”

“By permitting excessive pollution to be discharged into the Pigeon River, North Carolina failed to adequately protect public waters in the best interest of its people,” said DJ Gerken, a senior attorney with Southern Environmental Law Center. “The citizens of both North Carolina and Tennessee deserve better.”

About Clean Water Expected for East Tennessee: Clean Water Expected in East Tennessee is a group of young individuals, primarily raft-guides, who seek to see the Pigeon River live up to it’s full potential.
Contact: Clean Water Expected for East Tennessee, Amelia Taylor, Executive Director, 423-237-5187, [email protected]

About Clean Water for North Carolina: Clean Water for NC, founded in 1984, is a statewide environmental justice organization working with impacted communities for protection of their environmental rights and health, through organizing, research and advocacy. We have worked with hundreds of community partners on issues including contaminated drinking water wells, toxic air emissions, sewer overflows, damaging mountain developments and toxic industrial discharges. WEB:, FACEBOOK: Clean Water for North Carolina; TWITTER: CleanWaterforNC
Contact: Hope Taylor, Executive Director, Clean Water for North Carolina, 919-401-9600, [email protected]

About Cocke County, Tennessee
Contact: Iliff McMahan, Mayor, Cocke County, Tennessee, 423-237-0928, [email protected]

About Sierra Club: The Sierra Club is a national, grassroots environmental advocacy non-profit organization dedicated to protecting communities, wild places, and the planet itself. The TN Chapter works to explore, enjoy, and protect Tennessee. WEB:
Contact: Axel Ringe, Executive Director, Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, 865-397-1840,
[email protected]

About Tennessee Conservation Voters: Located in Nashville and founded in 1973, TCV is a coalition of state conservation groups dedicated to raising voter awareness, advocating stronger laws and holding our elected leaders accountable for safeguarding the environment of Tennessee. TCV’s executive director Chris Ford hails from 10 generations of Cocke Countians in the Grassy Fork community. WEB:
Contact: Chris Ford, Executive Director, Tennessee Conservation Voters, 423-202-1382, 615-269-9090, [email protected]

About Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association: The Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association (TSRA) is a volunteer organization dedicated to the preservation, protection and restoration of the scenic, free-flowing rivers of our state. Based in Nashville, Tennessee, the organization has approximately 1,000 members across the state and the south.
Contact: Daniel Boone, Tennessee Scenic River Association, 615-495-0897, [email protected]

About Western North Carolina Alliance: The Western North Carolina Alliance is a grassroots organization which aims to promote a sense of stewardship and caring for the natural environment. The Alliance’s primary goal is to protect and to preserve our natural land, water and air resources through education and public participation in policy decisions at all levels of business and government. WEB:
Contact: Hartwell Carson, French Broad Riverkeeper, Western North Carolina Alliance, 828-258-8737, [email protected]

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DJ Gerken

President and Executive Director

Phone: 828-258-2023