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Pigeon River Water Quality Hearings This Month

Posted: 01/15/2010
By: Kevin Colburn

Public hearings have been scheduled later this month regarding a new draft water quality permit for Blue Ridge Paper Products, which discharges tens of thousands of pounds of pollutants into the Pigeon River (NC/TN) each year.  The debate over the effluents of the paper mill has been extremely controversial over the past few decades, and this new permitting process marks a significant opportunity for progress.  Paddlers are encouraged to attend the hearings, learn more about the issue, and voice your concerns and opinions. 


Much has been done over the past 20 years to clean up the Pigeon River and it appears highly likely that additional cost-effective improvements are possible during the new permit period.  The river conservation community however questions whether or not the draft permit does enough to continue the restoration of one of the most polluted rivers in the region. 


Perhaps the largest concern is regarding the "color variance," which grants the mill permission to violate water quality standards regarding the color (and associated pollutants) of the water until compliance is possible. The draft permit proposes to drop the current color variance, which would indicate that existing mill operations are meeting water quality standards and therefore slow or eliminate progress in cleaning up the river.  The standards are "narrative" meaning there is no hard and fast number associated with them.  River advocates strongly believe that the narrative standard is not met by current operations and are squarely opposed to eliminating the color variance.       


The Pigeon River has some of the most beautiful and pristine headwaters of any river in the region.  Whitewater treats like the Big East Fork, the West Fork, and the Middle Prong flow from Wilderness Areas near the Blue Ridge Parkway.  In Canton, NC at the mill, the river is transformed from one of the cleanest rivers in the region to one of the most polluted.  The river is shortly thereafter impounded in Waterville Lake, diverted around the Dries of the Pigeon, and then released into a popular class III gorge near the Tennessee border that attracts tens of thousands of rafters and other paddlers each year. 


The Pigeon River issue is a challenging mix of ecological, recreational, public health, social justice, and rural employment issues.  We ask that paddlers attend the hearing with an open mind, and seek cost-effective improvements in water quality.  We do not feel that it is wise to lift the color variance, as it seems that improvements can and should be made before water quality standards are considered to be met.  Many of the pollutants released into the river pose documented health risks, and one primary role of the permit is to protect paddlers from health impacts associated with exposure to the water.  As AW staff testified at the last permit hearing when the toxicity of fish was a major problem, "We don't eat the fish, we are the fish."    


For more information, read the Draft Permit, and surf the State of NC's website regarding the permit.

Attend a hearing or submit written comments:

Attend the public hearing in NC                        

Tuesday, January 26, 2010                                       
Tuscola High School                                                  
Waynesville, North Carolina                                      


Attend the public meeting in TN:

Monday, January 25, 2010

Cocke County High School

Newport, Tennessee


Written comments should be submitted to:
Ms. Dina Sprinkle
NC Division of Water Quality/NPDES Unit
1617 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC 27699-1617

Or and

Be sure to reference "PERMIT NUMBER NC0000272 for Blue Ridge Paper Products"

Kevin Colburn

Asheville, NC

Full Profile

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