Hard times for a mill town; new life for the Pigeon River

Betty BeanKnox Scene

“Pigeon River Just Ahead, Polluted by Champion International. Lord Help Us, EPA Won’t.”

The billboard that delivered the above message was erected by a Cocke County environmental group called the Dead Pigeon River Council. It was only displayed for a few weeks in 1988. Located on I-40 just west of the North Carolina line, the billboard got vandalized and painted over by supporters of the paper mill – but not before it made the point that the paper company up the river had turned the pristine mountain stream into a dark, foamy, reeking, carcinogenic sewer flowing straight into East Tennessee.

The people of Cocke County had been protesting the mill, which opened in 1908, for most of the 20th century, with little result. But when Champion International’s discharge permit came up for renewal by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1988, the Cocke Countians saw an opening. They knew that the permit, which officially dealt only with the color of the effluent, symbolized much more than aesthetics.

But while North Carolina’s state government was foursquare behind the paper company, the Cocke Countians didn’t have that kind of support from Nashville. Their hopes rested on the shoulders of Tennessee’s pro-business governor Ned McWherter, who had the power to veto the permit renewal. But Champion’s North Carolina enablers had McWherter’s ear. They claimed that vetoing the permit renewal would mean economic disaster for the western part of their state and they lobbied the Tennessee governor so hard that he was reluctant to act on the pleas of the Cocke Countians who trekked back and forth from East Tennessee to present their case.

“He said he didn’t want to cost people their jobs,” said Gay Webb, who was born on land later confiscated by the federal government for the national park. Webb was a co-founder of the Dead Pigeon River Council and was the one most responsible for the state line sign that riled the folks in Canton.

Webb didn’t pay much attention to the death threats, but he was vitally concerned with the governor’s intentions.

One time McWherter was campaigning in East Tennessee and stopped by Webb’s Wilton Springs Hardware store to say hello. Webb, who was reaching the outer edges of his patience with do-nothing state government, had some choice, unfiltered words for the governor.

“He let me cuss him for about five minutes straight. Probably the meanest man that’s ever been through here was in the store and sat right there and listened. After McWherter got up and left, this man said to me, “I didn’t know who the hell you was talking to, but surely you weren’t talking to no governor like that.”

Next time the Cocke County delegation went to Nashville, Webb said McWherter pulled him off to the side and said, “I ain’t never been cussed like that in my life, and I drove a beer truck in Memphis.”

Gov. Ned McWherter in canoe on the Pigeon River (Photo from Billy Stair’s book, “McWherter.”)

Down the river

Later that year, McWherter advisor Billy Stair, an East Tennessean whom the Cocke Countians came to consider an ally, provided the area with the break it needed when he arranged for the governor to ride a raft over the brown waters of the Pigeon from the North Carolina Power and Light power station down the gorge to Hartford just across the state line. Hartford residents had nicknamed their town “Widowville” because they’d been so hard hit by various forms of cancer, which they believed had been caused by consuming dioxin-contaminated Pigeon River fish.

The tour began on a bridge up above Canton where the governor looked out over the pristine headwaters of the Pigeon while his tour guide, an employee of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, told him that North Carolina had some of the toughest water quality standards in the country, which they enforced upriver from the paper mill.

The governor got into a canoe with Stair and some other staffers and proceeded to paddle downriver through the mill’s 100-something acre campus. A few minutes later, they were stopped by county deputies who threatened to arrest everybody on board for trespassing. They said the river belonged to Champion International.

The deputies backed off when they heard who the guy in the Stetson hat was, and McWherter finished the Champion leg of his journey and rejoined the staff, reporters and guides waiting on the riverbank down below the power station with a flotilla of rafts.

As they prepared to float downstream to Hartford, McWherter was easy to pick out of the crew because the guides didn’t have a safety helmet big enough to fit his enormous noggin – he was the guy in the cowboy hat. I was in the raft right behind him, and Journal photographer Jack Rose, who got some remarkable shots, was in the lead raft.

The aftermath

We bounced around boulders and over intimidating rapids while the brown water swirled around us. The smell wasn’t that bad once our noses went numb. When we got down to Hartford, McWherter stepped ashore and spat a long brown stream of tobacco juice into the equally brown river and mused about what he’d seen (the quote is an approximation from memory – I didn’t carry a tape recorder down the river):

“North Carolina’s got some of the strictest water quality regulations in the country, and the water flowing into Champion is clean enough to drink. It comes out black and polluted and then they turn it loose on us.”

The “us” snapped me to attention. The Tennessee governor was no longer identifying with the big business polluters. He didn’t announce his decision for several months, but anybody who was at Hartford when he got off that raft had a pretty good feel for which way he was going to go.

It was clear that the governor was about to change his mind, and the credit should go to Billy Stair and to the tireless work of the Dead Pigeon River Council, one of the smartest and most dedicated volunteer organizations I ever covered.

Key advisors to Gov. Ned McWherter: Billy Stair, senior policy advisor; David Manning, finance commissioner; and Jim Kennedy, chief of staff. All three worked for McWherter as House speaker and stayed through his eight years as governor. (From Stair book)

Years later, shortly after McWherter’s death, his son Mike became the Democratic nominee for governor and came through Cocke County campaigning. He spotted Webb in the crowd and told him his daddy had instructed him to “do anything for Gay Webb that he asks for.” He tried to write Webb a check, but Webb refused. He’s still mulling the whole thing over.

“It took Ned McWherter awhile, but in the end, he was the only one of them who ever tried to help us,” Webb said – adding that he was particularly disappointed with the indifference of then-Senator Al Gore, who was too busy running for president and courting North Carolina primary votes to be of any real assistance.

I was a rookie reporter at The Knoxville Journal when all this came down, and it was a stroke of luck that I was assigned to cover the Pigeon River story, which was one of the most important events I would ever cover. Memories of that David and Goliath battle have stayed with me for all the years since, and the news that Champion’s successor Pactiv Evergreen plans to shut down the paper mill this summer brought them flooding back.

It’s a gargantuan understatement to say that Canton, North Carolina, is a company town.

Situated on the headwaters of the Pigeon River 20 miles outside Asheville, and fed by a network of railroads that haul in the timber to be pulped into white paper, the mill directly employs most of the town’s working population.

As Bobby Seay, another DPRC co-founder, points out, it owns the whole town. Canton, for example, has never had its own wastewater treatment plant – the mill has always treated Canton’s sewage. What will they do when it closes?

And that’s not all, Seay says – the mill’s credit union services most of the area’s mortgage loans.

It’s easy to see why Evergreen’s announcement hit western North Carolina like an atomic bomb.

It’s a different story downriver and across the state line, where generations of Cocke Countians have paid the price for their neighbors’ prosperity; so, don’t hold your breath waiting for people like Gay Webb to shed any tears over the paper mill’s closing. He is not an unkind man – but years of death threats, intimidation and economic disparity could wring the sympathy out of a saint.

Whitewater ahead

“Should’ve been done a long time ago,” Webb said of the closing. “Needs to be done. Soon as possible. That place has wiped Cocke County and East Tennessee out for over 100 years.”

He predicts that the scenic Pigeon River will take its rightful place as the premier whitewater stream in the eastern USA once the mill stops pumping.

“We’ll have the most awesome river in the United States. It’ll be the cleanest river east of the Mississippi. I probably won’t be here long enough to see it, but you’ll see it. I predicted this was going to happen.”

Bobby Seay, who has lived in Newport all his life and was executive director of the Chamber of Commerce there, is another battle-scarred veteran of the long fight to clean up the river. He doesn’t share Webb’s unbridled enthusiasm.

While he agrees that the water quality’s going to improve almost immediately, he worries about what’s lurking below the surface. Dioxin, a toxic byproduct of the bleaching process used to make white paper, has a half-life of hundreds of years and nobody knows exactly how many tons of contaminated sludge are on the bottom of the lake behind the power company’s dam.

He’s also not without sympathy for the people of Canton, who have lived their lives dependent on the company store and are soon to be left without a source of income.

“If we have some kind of celebration down here, I think we need to take up an offering for the people up there. They are in for a very hard time,” Seay said.

Post Scriptum: Shortly after the company announced its intention to shut down the mill and throw everybody in Canton into the unemployment line, they learned that the Illinois-based company had dumped much of its stock so it could pay out fat dividends to its earlier shareholders. The Asheville Citizen-Times reported Canton mayor Zeb Smathers’ reaction:

“What we learned out of the blue on Monday evening led to shock and numbness and sadness and mourning. But what I have seen involving the dividends, the idea that top brass cashed in stocks just days before closing is absolutely sickening and cowardly,” Smathers told the Citizen Times on March 8.

“On a personal and political level this is another sickening example of rural Americans not being respected.”

I doubt that anybody in Cocke County is surprised by this one last demonstration of corporate greed.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.

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