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Pigeon River Quality Up for Review

Clean Water Expected in East Tennessee (CWEET) representatives recently attended a water quality hearing in Raleigh, NC for that state’s Triennial Review on November 19th. Representatives Amelia Taylor and Maria Guzman of CWEET made public comments regarding the Color Variance for Blue Ridge Paper Products, a pulp and paper mill in Canton, NC that releases toxic pollutants to the Pigeon River, which then flows into downstream Cocke County.

Every three years, each state is required to perform a Triennial Review, required by the Clean Water Act, to review its surface water quality standards and determine if changes are necessary. The Clean Water Act also requires review of existing variances to surface water quality standards.

Blue Ridge Paper Products is the Pigeon River’s primary polluter of major industrial point source pollution, which is also the easiest water pollution to prevent. The state of North Carolina had determined that the mill is still not meeting narrative water quality standards for color, odor, foam, fish palatability, and full body contact to allow for recreation, a public right, on the Pigeon River.

Federal regulations allow for states to adopt variances, or permission to pollute more than the legal limit, when the water quality standards cannot be met. These variances are intended to be temporary, until a time when the polluter can comply, while the polluter is searching for best management practices to reduce pollution. Blue Ridge Paper Products has been granted a variance for color pollution releases since 1988.

In North Carolina’s most recent draft permit which was released for public review in 2009, it was actually proposed that the color variance be removed under North Carolina’s attempt to decry that water quality standards were finally being met. However, public outcry due to the weak permit that did not call for improvements to water quality, led the Environmental Protection Agency to object to the permit, further requiring NC to amend the permit and include the Variance.

The final permit was released in 2010 which still included the color variance. The color variance can be confusing to newcomers on the Pigeon River controversy because downstream communities would like to see it discontinued, but only when they feel that water quality standards are finally being met. CWEET members believe that if the variance is dropped now then there will not be any further legal motivation to continue clean up of the river.

If the color variance was removed at this point, CWEET members feel that the mill would then be essentially “off the hook”, as they believe the Color Variance is the last remaining acknowledgement that water quality standards are not being met.

One interesting and frustrating aspect for water quality standards in many states, including NC and TN, is that they are determined based on a “narrative” rather than a “numerical” standard. Under a narrative standard, there is no scientific set point at which pollution is considered to be too much. Instead, under the narrative standards, the set point for too much pollution is up for interpretation. This “narrative” standard leads to conflict between government, downstream communities, and industry who may all have different ideas of what a “narrative” water quality standard may look like.

CWEET has advocated for numerical water quality standards in NC and all states to remedy the problem of the vague and often unenforceable narrative standard.

North Carolina’s Division of Water Quality will be accepting public comments for the Triennial Review until January 3rd, 2014. CWEET has submitted its own comments but encourages individuals, businesses, local government, and legislators to submit comments regarding water quality standards for Blue Ridge Paper Products and pollution releases to the Pigeon River.

CWEET has prepared several of the following brief talking points to help individuals submit their own public comment.

  • Blue Ridge Paper Products in still not meeting water quality standards for color, odor, foam, fish palatability, and recreation on the Pigeon River.

  • The Color Variance must not be dropped until a color standard has been met.

  • We cannot determine whether a color standard has been met until we have a numerical standard, not a narrative standard that is vague and unenforceable.

  • Color is toxins! Color is more than an aesthetic issue because color is made up of many carcinogenic and toxic chemicals.

  • Toxins may be effecting health of river guides and boaters on the Pigeon River!

  • Blue Ridge Paper Products should be required to implement process changes to clean up their pollution in EVERY permitting cycle.

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