A Few Polluted Hours on the River

We drifted silently downstream as we moved closer to the Blue Ridge Paper Company, the source of the pollution on the Pigeon River in Canton, North Carolina. My guide on this trip was Hartwell Carson, the French Broad Riverkeeper. As a riverkeeper he serves as the eyes and ears and nose for the rest of us on issues about the health and pollution in The French Broad River Basin.

We stopped the canoe occasionally so that Carson could take readings with the water quality probe he brought along. The device tells Carson things such as water temperature, oxygen content and conductivity. These indicators alone do not prove or disprove pollution. Rather they serve as an early warning system of possible trouble that may need to be investigated more fully. While Carson was satisfied with the readings he obtained, the true situation would not be able to be determined until he repeated the process downstream from the paper mill.

We slowly passed the discharge pipe, it’s location being given away by the rolling surface of the river bubbling like water boiling on a stove. But there were other signs that we had entered the polluted part of the river.

The water upstream from the plant was crystal clear. The flowing river was so transparent that you could not only see the bottom, but you could make out each individual rock – regardless of size. As we crossed the line of demarcation, the change was as sudden as it was drastic. The water turned from crystal clear to the color of the coffee we used to drink in the Navy. The smell, which was barely perceptible in the air on the unpolluted upstream side suddenly and overwhelmingly carried an unmistakeable stench. The rocks which had been plainly visible only fifty feet before, were now covered with algae – a sure sign that there was oxygen robbing pollutants in the water.

Carson stopped the canoe once more to take readings. The water temperature had risen 10 degrees, eliminating sensitive species such as trout and the federally listed Appalachian Elktoe In places the river became extremely shallow and we had to step out from the safety of the craft into the toxic soup in order to portage the canoe over and around rocks. The bottom was as slippery and treacherous to walk on as the sidewalks in Asheville the day after a blizzard.

The trip finished, we pulled and shoved the canoe up the steep bank to where the truck was parked. As we turned the canoe over to lay it upside down on the truck, we were splashed with more of the foul, tainted river water. The smell will stay on me for days.

As we climbed back into truck and started to roll out of town Carson said, “The beauty of rivers is that we all own the water and no one has the right to take away our right for clean healthy water”

Carson, a Macon, GA native, has been involved with waterway environmental issues most of his adult life. As a young baseball player in Macon who couldn’t hit a curve ball, he figured that he needed to find another direction for his life. Combining his love of the outdoors with his concern for the environment, he began a path that took him first to the University of Georgia.

After graduation, he did a stint with the Forest Service in Colorado. The next step in life took him to grad school in Montana where he conducted all-encompassing work probing the social and ecological impact on the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument (WHAT THE HECK IS THE UPPER MISSOURI RIVER BREAKS NATIONAL MUNUMENT????) Ultimately he landed in western North Carolina where he worked for Riverlink before taking his current position with the Western North Carolina Alliance (WNCA) in April 2010. WNCA is a 28-year old grassroots advocacy organization that empowers citizens to be advocates for livable communities and the natural environmental of Western North Carolina.

At the WNC Alliance meeting in which Carson was introduced, Julie Mayfield, WNCA executive director, said, “Hartwell as the Riverkeeper will continue to educate the public about the threats to the river, but will take on an expanded role to monitor and address other pollution sources, including coal ash, hazardous waste sites, bacteria pollution from sewage and animal waste, industrial point sources and pharmaceutical waste from improperly disposed of pills and medicines. We are just getting this work off the ground and are excited about the opportunities to improve rivers and streams throughout the watershed.”

Two characteristics that have differentiated Waterkeeper organizations such as The WNCA are their grassroots focus as well as their commitment to enforcing the law, such as the U.S. Clean Water Act.

Carson is one of 200 Riverkeepers in the nation who come under the umbrella of the Waterkeeper Alliance. Being one of only 10 in the state of North Carolina, his primary region of responsibility is the vast French Broad River Basin. The French Broad stretches over two states and includes over 7,000 miles of streams and tributaries.
A Riverkeeper is a full-time, privately-funded, non-governmental advocate for an identified river, lake, bay, or sound. They are recognized by their community, local government and media as “the voice” for that particular body of water. They advocate and agitate for compliance with environmental laws, respond to citizen complaints, identify problems that affect their identified bodies of water, and develop remedies to address these problems.
The Pigeon River, on which we paddled flows through Canton, North Carolina on it’s way to joining the French Broad River. Canton was founded in 1889 as Buford and the name changed in 1891 to Pigeon Ford. In 1893, the town’s name was changed again, this time to Canton. It is named for Canton, Ohio, the source of the steel for the bridge over the Pigeon River and today 4,029 people call Canton home with a per capita income of $17,995 – 13.3% of the population live below the poverty line.
Canton was also the home of Champion International Paper factory which was built in the early 1900s. Besides being the largest employer in Canton, the factory was also the largest polluter in western North Carolina. When Champion decided to close the plant in 1997 the employees of Champion purchased the plant and formed Blue Ridge Paper Company.
The pollution situation in the river became an issue in the campaign during the 1988 Presidential election. As Al Gore started his first campaign for the Presidency, Newsweek magazine reported that Gore was pressed by North Carolina Senator Terry Sanford and Congressman Jamie Clarke to lighten up on his campaign against Champion’s discharges into the Pigeon River. According to Newsweek, Gore complied with their request, writing to the United States Environmental Protection Agency to oppose tighter water pollution control requirements (“Gore’s Pollution Problem”, Newsweek, 24 November 1997). This issue was again raised during the 2000 Presidential election.
In December 2006, the last advisory against eating fish caught in the Pigeon River was issued. Dioxin, a result of the paper making processes in the mill, had seeped into the river bottom. For decades, dioxin had worked it’s way up the food chain and into the aquatic life. A spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said dioxin concentrations in fish samples taken from the river had decreased 99 percent since 1990.
Some scientists warn that the lowered dioxin levels detected in the Pigeon may still be unsafe, and the color of the river is still not at its natural state. The condition of the river downstream from the paper mill is not surprising. In the paper making process, most paper mills use one or more of the following chemicals – some of which are known carcinogens: carbon monoxide, ammonia, nitrogen oxide, mercury, nitrates, methanol, benzene and other volatile organic compounds.
Carson says that his goal as Riverkeeper is not to shut down the plant, but to find ways where the plant and the river can peacefully co-exist. His complaint is not with the plant – “they’re making every effort to stay within the law”, Carson says. His complaint is with the federal and state regulators who consistently fail to raise the standards under which the plant must operate.
“Good environmental policy is good economic policy 100% of the time. Cleaning up the Pigeon River will help ensure we can have a clean efficient mill as well as a thriving river and community that depends on the river.”says Carson.

To report water pollution anywhere in the French Broad River watershed, call their toll-free water pollution hotline: 828-258-8737

Contact Hartwell Carson, French Broad Riverkeeper at 828-258-8737 or email Riverkeeper@wnca.org

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