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Paper Mill Fights EPA Controls : Jobs vs. Pollution: 2 States Clash Over River Cleanup

July 11, 1989|DAVID TREADWELL | Times Staff Writer

HARTFORD, Tenn. — There was a time when the 75-mile-long Pigeon River was an ideal spot for catching trout, taking a swim, drawing drinking water and performing church baptisms.

Rising in the majestic Great Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina, the stream flowed crisp and clean over a pebbly bed in a northwesterly direction until it joined the French Broad River near Knoxville in eastern Tennessee.

But all that was before the Champion paper company built a pulp mill in the early 1900s in the North Carolina community of Canton, about 20 miles downstream from the Pigeon's headwaters.

Now, as a result of eight decades of pollution, beyond Canton the once-pristine river has become a fetid sewer that Tennesseans say looks like Coca-Cola, smells like rotten eggs and is laced with potent carcinogenic dioxins.

Tennesseans have been trying for decades to get Champion to clean up its operations, claiming that the mill--now a major producer of paper for juice and milk cartons and for envelopes--is responsible for the pollution and a hazard to their health and economic well-being.

In Hartford, a river hamlet of about 780 residents five miles west of the North Carolina border, townspeople blame the poisons in the stream for a rash of cancer deaths in recent decades.

"We've had 167 deaths from cancer in the past 20 to 30 years," said Mary Woody, postmaster of the town that local residents have grimly dubbed "Widowville."

Added 81-year-old Margaret Jenkins: "My husband died from cancer on his 71st birthday in 1977, and I can look out my kitchen window and see half a dozen other homes where there's been cancer deaths. There's been so many died with it, it's a tragedy."

In Newport, a town of 7,580 residents about 15 miles farther downstream, environmental activists say fish taken from the river show high levels of dioxin, often have missing eyes and fins and are covered with unsightly sores. The town long ago stopped using the Pigeon for its municipal water.

Four years ago, prodded by Tennessee, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped into the dispute and attempted to impose more stringent waste-water discharge requirements on the Champion plant.

But the agency's action set off a classic jobs vs. environment controversy that has since turned into a diminutive War Between the States.

Champion, whose Canton mill is the largest single employer in hard-pressed western North Carolina, contends that the only way it can meet the EPA's proposed standards is to reduce its operations and cut its nearly 2,000-person work force in half.

To North Carolinians, that spells economic disaster. Champion pumps almost $210 million into the regional economy, including more than $96 million in employee wages and benefits. About $600,000 of Canton's $3.75-million annual operating budget comes from Champion's city taxes.

"This town would be dead without Champion," said Roy Lee McCord, 53, of Canton.

Governors Clash

In the dispute, the governors of Tennessee and North Carolina have traded harsh words, North Carolina legislators have attempted to ban the sale of Tennessee sippin' whiskey within their state's borders and environmental activists have become the objects of death threats.

In addition, more than 175,000 letters have been sent to the EPA's regional office in Atlanta from partisans on both sides of the issue.

The battle has been fought in federal courts and has even raged in the halls of Congress.

"In all my experience, there's never been an issue quite like this," said Fritz Wagener, regional EPA water quality standards coordinator.

The feud erupted in May, 1985. North Carolina had routinely approved the renewal of Champion's waste-water discharge permit. But after complaints by environmental activists and state officials in Tennessee, the EPA vetoed the permit--the first time in its history that the agency had ever overridden a state's authority to issue such permits.

Champion filed a federal lawsuit challenging the EPA veto. In December, 1986, U.S. District Judge David Sentelle in Asheville, N.C., upheld the agency and, in the spring of the following year, the EPA wrote a draft permit that Champion said would have forced the mill out of business.

The EPA proposal called for the water at the end of the mill's discharge pipes to contain no more than 50 color units instead of the 85 color units the state of North Carolina had allowed.

The difference in color between water with 50 color units and water with 85 color units, EPA officials say, is like the difference in color between ginger ale and tea.

Hearings on the EPA's proposed guidelines were set for May but were later postponed to January, 1988.

Protest Movement

Meanwhile, a protest movement against the EPA and Tennessee was formed in Canton, which has a population of 4,700. Blue-and-white signs saying "We Support Champion" blossomed throughout the town in shop windows, neighborhood lawns and school buildings.

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