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A clean water advocacy group is questioning why an accidental discharge of a paper-making byproduct into the Pigeon River by the former Blue Ridge Paper mill hasn’t been the subject of more scrutiny.
A computer malfunction on Sept. 16 at the Evergreen Packaging Group plant in Canton caused a byproduct known as “black liquor” to flow into the river from the company’s wastewater treatment plant for 30 minutes. The substance reportedly turned the river black and foamy, and sparked phone calls to the Division of Water Quality from concerned residents, according to DWQ environmental specialist Keith Haynes.
Though calls came in from citizens wondering why the river looked odd in appearance, the only public confirmation of the incident came four days after it happened when it was reported in an article in The Mountaineer.
The DWQ, however, wasn’t required to issue any notice to the public, it says, because Evergreen has a permit to discharge treated effluent into the Pigeon River. While the discharge may have exceeded what the permit allows, it did go through the mill’s treatment system, so the public didn’t have to be notified.
Representatives from the Asheville-based Clean Water for North Carolina were surprised they hadn’t heard about the incident when a reporter contacted them.
The group issued a press release in response to the incident.
“It’s really upsetting to me that DWQ would go out and say it turns the river black and there was foam, and DWQ is not even expected to issue a notice of violation. They’re not even thinking about doing that, and they’ve clearly violated water quality standards,” said Clean Water spokesperson Gracia O’Neill.
Clean Water Executive Director Hope Taylor said the black liquor discharge exemplifies the weakness of Evergreen’s discharge permit standards. The permit is based on an average annual discharge, leaving much room to pollute a lot on one day and still get away with it, Taylor said.
“The permit is so weak that it doesn’t give us much in the way of enforcement materials. Without reasonable daily limits, it doesn’t give us the tools to prevent this,” said Taylor.
In the most basic form, the release of black liquor into the river from the wastewater treatment plant was equivalent to an excess release of color, according to DWQ reginal supervisor Roger Edwards. DWQ officials who checked out the situation concluded that the substance didn’t pose a threat to humans or wildlife.