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The dead Pigeon River: did Champion International's dioxin pollution create a 'Widowsville' in North Carolina?

Even as a five-year-old in 1947, Mary Woody knew there was something wrong with the Pigeon River, which flowed behind her great-grandfather's home in Hartford, Tennessee. "It had foot-high white foam floating along the top, was brown in color and smelled like rotten eggs," Woody says. "But now it's not the smell that bothers us; it's the dioxin."

The source of the pollution on the Pigeon River is a pulp and paper mill about 40 miles upstream in Canton, North Carolina, owned by Champion International Corporation. At Walter's Dam, a few miles below the mill, thick black sludge coats every rock in the river bed, evidence of the tannin bleached out of the wood pulp from millions of trees harvested since 1908.

Champion has long bleached its paper with chlorine, dumping dioxin and creating hundreds of other toxic organochlorines in its wastewater that flowed into the Pigeon River and across the border into Tennessee. The river doesn't look or smell nearly as bad these days, since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) got involved in the mid-1980s and put pressure on Champion to reduce the effluent it poured into the river.

Working and raising her family along the Pigeon River, Mary Woody and other townspeople knew they were seeing too many cases of cancer and birth defects, and attending too many funerals, giving the town its nickname - "Widowsville."

Gaye Webb, a hardware store owner, has lived along the river his whole life, and in 1981 organized the "Dead Pigeon River Council" to pressure Champion. "Pollution kills very slowly," he says, "and it killed Hartford just as if there had been a bombing raid."

After several teachers, custodians and students who worked at or attended the town's only elementary school were diagnosed with cancer, many Hartford parents pulled their children out of classes. The school, which drew drinking water from a well only 200 yards from the river, was closed in 1992. The townspeople took an informal survey that revealed an alarming 167 cancer cases over a 20-year period in a town which has a population of between 500 and 700.

In 1995, the Pigeon River gained national attention when Hartford native and former Empty Nest sitcom actress Park Overall took her community's story to ABC TV's Primetime Live. Overall and Hartford's residents accused Champion's paper mill of being the source of the town's high cancer rate. Since the controversy erupted, Champion has repeatedly asserted from its Stamford, Connecticut headquarters that there is "no scientific link the Canton mill to the occurrence of cancer in people living along the river."

Dioxin, as Hartford came to learn, is one of the world's most dangerous environmental poisons, an unintentional waste by-product of commercial chlorine industrial processes that include the chlorine bleaching of paper, manufacture of plastics and municipal waste incineration. The pulp and paper industry is the third-largest source of dioxin emissions.

Dioxins resist natural breakdown, persist for decades, and accumulate in the human body. High concentrations of dioxin, for example, form in fatty tissue and can be passed up the food chain from one generation to the next through the placenta and through breast milk. Chlorine, once manufactured during World War I for chemical weapons, is the common denominator in dioxin, DDT, Agent Orange, PCBs and ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons.

Legislative mandates in several European countries have helped to close the loop on dioxin wastewater discharge by employing Totally Chlorine-Free (TCF) bleaching technology. But, says Rick Hind, legislative director of Greenpeace's Toxic Campaign, U.S. industry leaders have resisted TCF and have pressured regulatory agencies to instead accept less-costly and less pure Elemental Chlorine-Free (ECF) technology (which merely substitutes chlorine dioxide for chlorine). Even ECF is considered a big step for U.S. paper mills accustomed to working with no restrictions. Currently, only four TCF pulp mills operate in the U.S., versus seven in Canada and 44 in Europe.

The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL) is a local group fighting for more scrutiny of Champion's Bleach Filtrate Recycling process (an ECF process that also uses chlorine dioxide). According to director Janet Hoyle, "What we're seeing really is a waste shell game, where the dioxins are not in the water, but in the air."

Champion, while denying any link between its Canton paper plant and the incidence of cancer among people living along the Pigeon River, nevertheless undertook a $330 million plant modernization project in 1995 that converted the plant to use an ECF bleaching process.

But Lou Zeller, a League organizer, maintains that when the chlorine discharge captured in the recovery boiler in Champion's bleach filtrate process is burned off "it may create new airborne pollutants, such as dioxin and furans."

Tucker Hill, Champion's vice president for regional public affairs, claims that its process, while still experimental, "will achieve the same results as TCF in limiting pollution."

The Chlorine Zero Discharge Act, originally introduced by former Congressman Bill Richardson (D-NM), would phase out the use of chlorine in the pulp and paper industry five years after passage. But the legislation has been dead-ended by industry opposition three times in Congress since 1993.

Mary Woody compares her community's struggle for clean water on the Pigeon River with that of David against Goliath, but adds, "We have no money. We don't even have the five stones that David had. But we won't give up the fight!"

CONTACTS: Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, PO Box 88, Glendale Springs, NC 28629/(910)982-2691; Green-peace USA Toxics Campaign, 1436 U Street NW, Washington, DC 20009/(202) 462-1177.
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Title Annotation:Champion International Corp.
Author:Harris, Scott
Date:May 1, 1997
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