Dark Waters 

Beneath the Surface of the Pigeon River Controversy

Beneath the Surface of the Pigeon River Controversy

The 30 or 40 people on USA Raft’s converted blue school bus are already fastened into their bulky life vests, and they’re already clutching paddles. Red rubber rafts are strapped to the roof of the bus, which is bumping and shuddering its way along a short strip of Interstate 40 winding through the hills of upper East Tennessee. In the front of the bus, the head guide, Jeff York, is doing a standup comedy routine.

“If you look, actually,” he shouts over the noise of the bus and the wind through the open windows, “there’s lots to do here in Hartford. If you look to the left you can see, uh, grass growing.”

To the left, a striking blue-and-white billboard catches my eye.

“THANK YOU, CHAMPION,” it reads, “FOR A HALF-CLEAN PIGEON RIVER. NOW, CLEAN THE OTHER HALF! (DO YOUR JOB, NORTH CAROLINA—NO COLOR VARIANCE!) CITIZENS FOR A CLEAN PIGEON RIVER.”

Just before the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, the bus leaves the highway. Rolling down a steep hill and crossing a high bridge over the river, it stops at Carolina Power & Light’s Walters hydroelectric plant. The plant’s floodgates are open, and a torrent of tea-colored water rushes from Waterville Lake, filling the bed of the Pigeon River. A few hundred yards to our right, a stream—Jeff says it is called Big Creek—rushes down the mountainside into the river.

A distinct line is formed at the point where the water of the stream meets the water coming out of the power plant. Big Creek’s water is clear and bright. The water from the plant is brown and murky. A small placard, posted underneath a “NO PARKING” sign, warns that fish from this body of water contain “contaminants at levels thought to increase the risk of cancer or other disease in humans.” The warning is signed by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Until just a few years ago, rafting on the Pigeon wasn’t a possibility. Local residents called it the “Black River” or the “Dead Pigeon.” Then the river began to lose some of its coffee-like color and the sulfurous odor became less obnoxious. Each year now, 30,000-50,000 people raft the river; they pay $30-$40 a trip.

Like others who work at the 15 whitewater rafting companies along the Pigeon River, Jeff York finds himself in a precarious position. He doesn’t want to call too much attention to the color of the water; that might be bad for business. On the other hand, he knows that a cleaner river would only help the rafting industry. Rafting excursions on the river are filled with screams and laughter. The history of the river, however, is no laughing matter.

The Pigeon River begins in North Carolina. From the slopes of Black Mountain, it flows into Champion International’s Canton, N.C., mill, where it is used to process uncoated paper and paperboard. Then water, complete with waste products, is released back into the stream. The river then flows about 26 miles until it crosses the Tennessee state line in Cocke County. When the water is released from the Walters Plant turbines, near the state line, the river roars along at levels generous enough for whitewater rafting.

According to historian Richard A. Bartlett, the town of Canton, N.C., had 230 residents at the turn of the century. Ten years later, the population had boomed to 1,393, thanks to the timber-rich countryside and the Champion Fibre mill, built by industrialist Peter G. Thomson in 1908.

At that time, pollution was not much of a concern. In its haste to attract investors like Thomson, the North Carolina Legislature in 1901 had passed a bill to encourage the building of pulp mills and paper mills in Haywood and Swain counties. Under the provisions of the bill, anybody spending more than $100,000 to build a plant converting wood into wood pulp would not be subject to “any criminal prosecution for the pollution of any watercourses upon which such factories or factory are located.”

Nevertheless, pollution was a problem from the moment the Champion mill opened in 1908. One area resident, interviewed in 1984, remembered times when the river “turned black as molasses” and “even the mud turtles couldn’t live in that water.”

People living downriver from North Carolina, specifically in Tennessee, were none too happy. Beginning in 1908 the Tennessee General Assembly introduced acts authorizing the state’s attorney to sue Champion Fibre Co. for damages and to enjoin it from further polluting the Pigeon River.

In terms of productivity, however, the mill was a smashing success. By 1931, Canton’s population had swelled to more than 6,000. Workers received automatic raises every five years. The company provided free medical clinic and free life insurance. By 1950 Champion was also providing a summer camp for the children of workers. At Snug Harbor, a large house in Canton, retirees could gather to play cards and reminisce. By that time, Peter Thomson’s son-in-law, Reuben Robertson, was president of the company. He was popular with the townspeople, who respected him as an employer who cared for his workers. But Robertson’s priorities remained clear. When Tennessee state historian Wilma Dykeman once approached him about cleaning up the Pigeon River, he replied that his stockholders came first and that Champion would not begin cleanup until it had to.

In the mid-1960s, Champion began to feel the pressure to clean up the river. The North Carolina State Stream Sanitation Committee ordered Champion to design and construct secondary treatment facilities. The condition of the river improved—somewhat. In 1972 Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which granted individual states the authority to issue NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permits. These permits—each of which is tailored to a specific case—define acceptable limits of emissions. Champion’s permits were issued by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Management. The federal Environmental Protection Agency can reject any NPDES permit, but such occurrences are unusual.

In the case of Champion, however, that’s exactly what happened. In 1985, the EPA, under pressure from then-Sen. Al Gore and others, rejected the permit issued by North Carolina, saying the state was violating the water quality standards of an adjacent state—Tennessee. Since the “color” standard of acceptable pollution in Tennessee was 50 color units, the EPA ruled, water from the Pigeon would have to meet that standard when it crossed the state line, 26 miles below the Champion mill. EPA assumed authority for issuing Champion’s wastewater permit for North Carolina.

In the tangle of permit hearings, court cases, press releases, and red tape since 1985, “color” has been a major bone of contention. “Color” is a measurement of the darkness of the river water. It is much easier to test than the concentrations of certain pollutants, some of which may be measured in concentrations as small as parts per quadrillion. Nontoxic, natural causes, such as decaying wood, can affect the color of the river. But color does serve as a sort of marker: A darker color indicates the presence of more effluent from the mill. North Carolina, at present, has no set standards for color. But Tennessee’s standard is straightforward: The color of the river must not exceed 50 “units” at the state line.

The preliminary draft of Champion’s EPA permit, issued in 1987, required the company to meet the color standard at the state line—and just downstream from the mill. Champion insisted (and still insists) that compliance was impossible. The company insisted that the EPA’s demands would close the mill.

For a series of intense public hearings held in North Carolina and Tennessee in 1988, Champion bused in thousands of supporters wearing yellow hats and “Don’t Let Champion Fall” buttons. Tennessee environmental groups, including the Pigeon River Action Group and the Dead Pigeon River Council, brought along jars of dirty water. Politicians in both states took sides. In Canton, North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin declared that the river was not “an environmental problem.” In Tennessee, after a canoe trip down the Pigeon, Gov. Ned McWherter remarked that the water was so dirty he couldn’t even see his spit after it hit the water.

In 1988 EPA also released the results of tests that found dioxins—a family of chemicals linked to cancer, neurological damage, and reproductive disorders—in the Pigeon River. No dioxins are released from the Canton mill, but the mill does turn out small amounts of chlorine, and chlorine, once it combines with organic compounds, can form dioxin. Along the riverbank, signs appeared warning against the dioxin concentrations in fish taken from the Pigeon.

As the smoke began to clear in 1989, EPA gave Champion a five-year permit that required the company to meet Tennessee’s water quality standards at Tennessee’s state line. Champion would have three years to comply, and dioxin testing would be mandatory. The permit granted a color “variance” that allowed unlimited amounts of color in the 26-mile stretch of the river between the North Carolina mill and the Tennessee state line. That permit expired in 1994, but Champion applied for a new one, to be issued by the state of North Carolina.

Champion’s permit is still up for review. This past summer, more public hearings were held. Environmentalists showed up, but there were none of the debacles of 1988. The company’s critics argued that the new permit looks very much like the old one. But almost everyone agreed that the river is in better shape than it was. At the same time, protesters continue to argue that Champion must do still more.

The Champion mill at Canton functions at full capacity today, round the clock, seven days a week. Each day the mill produces 1,476 tons of paper and paperboard from twice that many tons of wood chips. The paper is used in envelopes, letterhead, note paper, and in packaging, notably for dairy and juice cartons. Each year, the mill pays over $2 million dollars in taxes to Haywood County and the town of Canton. The company’s annual payroll exceeds $89 million.

Two years ago, the mill’s figures were considerably higher. However, the company reported a loss of $80 million over the space of 29 months; as a result, Champion reduced the work force at its Canton facility by 20 percent. Champion has assured the community that the cutbacks were not “a trade-off of jobs for the environment.” But the townspeople have vivid memories of the permit hearings, at which some protesters demanded that the plant be shut down.

You can’t escape the mill in Canton. It overshadows everything. The water-recovery towers rise eerily out of the valley; clouds of steam billow out into the air. The mill looks almost monstrous, a colossal tangle of pipes and stacks and tanks.

On some days, the infamous paper-mill smell is not overwhelming. But some local residents warn that its intensity varies from day to day. “That smell—some days it’s like male cat urine,” says Theresa Smith, who has worked at the local Salvation Army store since it opened five years ago on Main Street in Canton. “Some mornings it about makes you sick.”

Right now, the people of Canton have other reasons for feeling low. Paul Sanford, a tall young man with big, round glasses, is leaning against the counter in the Salvation Army store. After the layoffs at the mill, he says, “It kinda made it look dead around here. It just seemed like everybody was depressed. And a lot of people blamed it on Tennessee. They still do, in a way.”

The streets of downtown Canton are dotted with “for lease” signs and empty storefronts. Eighty-seven-year-old Mary Freeman, owner of much of the property in downtown Canton, is the daughter of the man who sold the land where Peter Thomson built his mill.

“The town, for a long time, has been slow,” Freeman says. “There’s just no business here. When I was young, I worked in my father’s stores, and we stayed open to midnight on Friday nights—back when stores didn’t stay open to midnight.” In those days, she says, the river “was never really a problem. I saw it, and it was dark, and there was some foam, but it wasn’t that offensive. We all knew that was what made Canton great.”

Nancy Jackson, co-owner of Jackson Appliances on Main Street, stands next to one of the many aging Maytags in her otherwise empty store. Her father, brother, and cousins have all worked for Champion; her store, the only appliance store in town, had been in the same location for 28 years. Canton, she says, is “a small town,” a place where people from the older generation “bond together.”

But the younger generation is different. “The younger generation has no work,” Jackson says. “Champion’s not hiring. It used to be that if you graduated school, it was almost automatic that you went to work for Champion. But my son, when he graduated, had to leave. We’ve seen a lot of businesses go down—a Radio Shack, a Western Auto, a Belk’s. In a town like this, every loss is devastating.”

Jackson isn’t sure whom to blame for Canton’s problems. “I can’t blame the environmentalists and the people in Tennessee,” she says. “And I can’t blame Champion, totally. I know that [the pollution]’s been going on for such a long time now that it’s going to take years to repair the damage. I just keep thinking that if they’d started doing something about it years ago, we wouldn’t have it all falling on our heads at one time.”

About a mile downstream from the mill, Bobby Holland stares disgustedly into the dark-brown, slightly sulfurous waters of the Pigeon River. Holland has lived in Canton all of his life. Many of his friends and family members have worked at the mill. Holland maintains that he is not anti-Champion.

“But,” he says, “I’ve always thought that they should clean up the river. If it takes 10 years to clean it up, that’s all right as long as progress is being made.” Holland looks up from the river. “I made a lot of enemies in town,” he says.

Holland was the president of a short-lived Canton chapter of the Izaak Walton League, a private conservation organization. The chapter grew to about 20 members—remarkable in a paper mill town. Then membership began to decline; eventually, Holland and his family were the only ones still involved.

“We held cleanups—we took kids from the schools and cleaned up—and a month later the sites were just as dirty as they were before,” he recalls. “We sponsored Earth Day, and the first year a lot of people participated. But two years later, even Greenpeace didn’t show up. I haven’t said a lot lately because I’ve felt like I was banging my head up against a wall.”

When he looks down into the Pigeon River today, however, Holland can see some rocks at the bottom. That, he says, is an improvement. “To tell the truth, I’ll say what I’ve got to say whether I’ve got an organization behind me or not,” he insists. “I don’t have anything to gain out of all this except seeing this river clean.” Maybe, he admits, the river is a little cleaner as a result of “that whole permit mess.” But to a layperson like Holland, matters haven’t changed much. “The river does still smell,” he says, sweeping his hand out over the water. “They’re using this river all the way to the dam as one giant waste treatment plant. Why can’t they test the water here?”

Holland says Champion’s recent public-relations efforts, particularly the company’s sponsorship of the U.S. Olympic Kayak and Canoe Team, seem “pretty hypocritical.” “They’ve got these athletes riding around in the parades with ‘Champion’ on their helmets. Would you get on a kayak in that water?”

Inside the house, Holland’s teenage son Matthew does not share in his father’s crusade. “Matthew doesn’t get into all this stuff much,” Holland says, smiling. “I’m afraid he’s going to be a die-hard Republican. He seems to think that everybody should leave everybody else alone.”

To reach the mountaintop site of the Hall Family reunion, you have to negotiate a maze of winding roads that snake through canyons of kudzu. On this particular day, 200 or 300 relations—old and young, diapers to dentures—are on hand. Lunch is over, and a singing is already under way in a small, wooden chapel. Joe Hall has cancer; this could be his last family reunion. But he remains a stout, vigorous-looking man sporting a full, carefully trimmed mustache and a fedora. The very mention of the river causes him to explode.

“You want to know about the river?” he thunders. “You want to know about Champion, those liars, how they’ve been dumping their septic tank in our backyard for 80 years? Do you want to know about Al Gore, our native son, turning tail and running on us, lining his pockets for political payoff? I’d like to stick his nose in it!”

As far as Hall is concerned, Gore has abandoned the Pigeon River. During his time in the Senate, Gore consented to a compromise on color unit standards for the river. Instead of Tennessee’s established 50-unit standard, he agreed to permit a darker 85-unit standard at the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Gore’s critics allege that he backed off from his stance on cleanup in exchange for North Carolina Congressman James Clark’s support in the 1988 North Carolina presidential primary.

Gore’s aides deny the allegation, saying that Gore never supported the 85-unit standard. Instead, they say, he only agreed to it as a starting point for future efforts to the clean up the river.

For Joe Hall, however, the facts are simple: “I’ve got bladder cancer. As a kid I played and swam in that river. I know for a fact that it was caused by the Pigeon River. I know that that river’s going to cost me my life!”

He grudgingly admits that the river has improved somewhat. “When I rode the bus to high school,” he says, “the stench would gag you and make you puke. Now it’s a little better. But that’s like being a little bit pregnant. Either you clean it up, or you don’t! I had two brothers die of cancer. They played in the river. I had a sister-in-law die of cancer, and she ate fish from the river. We’ve had an abnormally high rate of cancer here.”

In one recent class-action lawsuit, Champion paid $6.5 million to people living on the Pigeon River and near Douglas Lake, outside Knoxville. But that payoff has not solved the mill’s public-relations problems. “All this money’s going to the landowners,” says Hall’s sister Iva Lee Rathbone. “That’s not helping the little people. It’s going to the people that built the big houses on the lake. I live eight miles from the river, and I can still smell it.”

Inside the wooden chapel, 66-year-old patriarch Ransom Hall is leading a group in shape-note singing. The harmonies are plain, the verses repetitive. “My triumph here will come, someday, someday,” they sing, “And I will have unending peace.”

Mary Woody and her husband, Paul, live at the edge of a beautiful valley near Hartford. They have lived in the same house for 43 years. Their spring-fed pond once served as the baptistry for a local church. Mary was the postmaster of the Hartford post office, which overlooks the Pigeon, for 30 years. She was also an ardent supporter of the Dead Pigeon River Council’s activities. It’s said that, during the “dioxin scare” of the late ’80s, Mary coined the term “Widowville,” referring to what local residents perceived as an abnormally high rate of cancer among local men. The name stuck.

Town residents were terrified, recalls Bob Seay, who is a driving force in the Dead Pigeon River Council and executive director of the Cocke County Chamber of Commerce. The Hartford Elementary school, just down the road from the post office, eventually had to shut down; fewer and fewer parents were willing to send their children to it, fearing contamination of the groundwater from the Pigeon.

Mary Woody has a few horror stories of her own: “My first memory of the river is from when I was 5 years old,” she says. “I remember standing on the porch of my grandfather’s two-story house that overlooked the river. The river was covered with white foam. Lord, it stunk. I’ve been afraid of it. I’ve seen too many funerals.”

Mary also remembers 1980, when Carolina Power and Light drained the Waterville Lake reservoir. It turned out that the bottom of the lake was covered in an estimated 50 feet of organic sludge, most of it from the Champion mill—the buildup of 80 years of settling effluent. When the reservoir was drained, tons of the sludge—sludge that is now believed to have been tainted with dioxin—was discharged into Tennessee. “There’s a lot of caskets down there in that muck,” says Mary Woody. “The dogs ate the fish that washed up on the bank, and then the dogs died. It was horrible.”

Like Bobby Holland, Woody is suspicious of Champion’s recent public-relations efforts. The company’s new TV ads, she says, are “awful.”

The ads tout fishing in the Pigeon River and purport to show a young Haywood County girl talking with her grandfather about all the fish that they love to catch from the river. After a flurry of protest in Tennessee, Champion pulled the ads, although the company continued to run them in western North Carolina.

According to Bob Seay, members of the Dead Pigeon River Council “asked and focused years prior to testing for dioxin for testing of heavy metals, including mercury, in the river. We were told by Tennessee and North Carolina officials that there wasn’t a problem. Now we get all these reports about mercury contamination, and I’m just disgusted.”

In mid-August, talk about mercury levels in the river stirred up a flurry of attention in the western North Carolina press. The headline of a front-page story in the Asheville Citizen-Times warned, “OFFICIALS MAY CHECK FISH FOR MERCURY—Champion International may be discharging metal into river.”

Representatives of the Canton mill seem ready and willing to talk about mercury levels. What’s more, they say they’re just as confused as the protesters are. Bob Williams, environmental affairs manager at the mill, says Champion has run “a priority pollutant scan” in two separate years. “Samples of our effluent were sent to two labs, and one reported trace amounts of mercury. One didn’t. We were as perplexed as anyone else.”

Williams is also primed to discuss the mill’s improvements since the issuance of the 1989 permit. He says Champion has reduced its total water usage by a third and reduced color by 75 percent. He says the mill has also taken steps to reduce the odor problem. Now, he says, the Canton mill is outfitted with technology for production and pollution control that is “light-years ahead of the competition.”

Questioned about the sludge buildup in Waterville Lake, Alan Joyce, public affairs manager at the mill, says, “We’re doing what we’ve been advised to do by the EPA.”

According to Joyce, “Dioxin hasn’t been detected at measurable levels in the river since 1989. It’s not in the effluent by any tests that we can show, and we’re talking about parts per quadrillion.”

“That’s like one second in 32 million years,” Williams says.

When it comes to the disputed TV ads, Joyce says they were pulled “because there was a controversy, not because we thought there was a problem. Having a decent relationship with the water-quality folks in Tennessee is important to us.” Asked if he would now eat fish from the river, Joyce quickly replies, “Sure.”

The information packet provided by Champion includes “An Overview of Champion’s Environmental Progress on the Pigeon River.” According to the overview, the mill has been subjected to “several one-sided reports by the media over the years.” The pamphlet asserts that “recently renewed claims that associate Champion with an increased incidence of cancer in people living along the Pigeon River are without foundation. There is no scientific evidence, no pattern of illness, and no unusual rate of illness to link the Canton mill to the occurrence of cancer in people living along the river.”

In 1988, according to the pamphlet, the Tennessee Department of Health and Environment conducted a cancer-mortality study of people living in Hartford, Tenn., “at the request of an anti-Champion group.” Results of the study indicated that “there were no statistically significant differences or any higher cancer rates between people residing on the river and the remainder of the population.”

Before Jeff York’s rafting party sets out on the Pigeon River, they wait in the old Hartford Elementary School. Rob Hayward, along with his wife, Joanne, and daughters Kellie and Allison, are down from Peoria, Ill. They have never heard about any environmental problems on the river. They simply wanted to go rafting, and the Pigeon was convenient.

On a bench outside the building, however, two men, already wearing their vests and helmets, are talking. “You hear about all the environmental mess up here?” one of the men says.

“Dumping junk, huh?” says the other. He smiles, shaking his head.

A guide overhears the exchange and jumps into the conversation. “This river’s been open about three or four years,” she says, “and you wouldn’t believe the difference. But there’s all kinds of crazy stuff still going on.” She begins to describe the current color measurement procedure.

One of the men chuckles grimly. “Diluting their poisons, eh?” he observes.

When the rafts reach the takeout point, the rafters look wet, tired, and happy. No one says anything about the condition of the river, but, during the trip, it seems the guides have taken special care not to let anyone fall in the water. There is a lot of metal in the river, they warn, some of it left over from an old logging railroad. The rusted metal could be very dangerous to rafters, they explain.

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