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Concerns grow over Pigeon River pollution ahead of North Carolina paper mill hearing

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality proposes lifting a color variance on the waste that the mill releases into the river.

COCKE COUNTY, Tenn. — When Daniel Jennette began rafting on the Pigeon River in Cocke County more than 30 years ago, he said it had the color consistency of chocolate milk.

"It smelled like chlorine," he said. "Almost made your eyes water."

Now, he said the Pigeon River is cleaner than it ever has been before—you can see the riverbed and wildlife has returned to the banks—but he fears a proposed change upstream could reverse the progress. 

"It just doesn’t make any sense," he said. "It's only going to hurt business."

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality plans an April 14 public hearing on a proposal to lift the color variance on waste the Blue Ridge paper mill releases into the water near Haywood, North Carolina.

The proposal would also renew a permit for the facility formally known as Champion Paper. 

"Oh, it’s gotten a world better. No doubt about that," said longtime Cocke County activist Gay Webb.

He was among those who lobbied North Carolina to impose more pollution controls on the mill decades ago. 

"We fought it, we fought it, we fought it and finally we got this much clean," he said.

Webb and Jennette both said they fear the reduced pollution control will send the river quality backsliding, a charge the company denies.

"The new permit is based on sound science, and the water quality standards that Evergreen is required to continue to meet in the new permit are no less stringent than in previous permits," said Evergreen Packaging in a statement, the company the owns the mill.

Since Jennette began rafting the then-chocolate waves of the river, rafting has grown into big business for the river and for Cocke County.

"If the variance is to an extent that it’s noticeable, it’s going to affect our business, there’s no doubt about it," Jennette said. 

Cocke County Mayor Crystal Ottinger said rafting along the Pigeon drives multi-million dollar tourism and tax dollar investment in the county. The rafting fees alone represent half a million dollars, roughly 4 percent of the county's general fund, Ottinger said. 

"If we don't have a clean river, then we don't have people coming to raft with us," she said. 

She said river tourism represents a lifeline to the economically depressed county. 

"It's an asset now," Ottinger said. "It was a liability in the past. We can't let it go back."

The paper mill denies that will happen.

"Evergreen remains committed to the health of the Pigeon River, and we believe the new permit, as drafted by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, is protective of the water quality and meets state and federal environmental standards," it said in a statement. 

The public hearing on the matter happened on April 14 with people voicing support and criticism for the proposal.

Public comment will be accepted through the end of the month.