It’s Our Rivers And Mountaintops, Not Corporations

Ned-McWherter-Pigeon-River

There is a story coming out of North Carolina about Riverkeepers who have been watching a coal ash spill on Cape Fear River. (No, really.)

Here’s a little piece of history for you: regarding how Ned McWherter and NC got into a spat back in 1988.

The controversy centered around the Champion Paper Mill in Canton, NC located ten miles upstream from the Tennessee state line in Cocke County. For over 80 years, the paper mill had discharged industrial waste into the river, destroying wildlife habitat and recreational areas downstream. Residents of Newport, TN and Hartford, TN complained about the negative economic and health consequences of the pollution, including higher cancer rates in areas along the Pigeon River.

In the late 80′s, opposition to the Champion Paper Mill in Tennessee reached a political boiling point, with newspapers and elected officials calling on Governor McWherter to deny the renewal of a water quality variance needed by the paper mill to continue operations. During the debate, Champion threatened to close the mill and layoff over 2,000 workers, which sparked heated debate across state lines.

Early one September morning, Governor McWherter, legislative aide Billy Stair and an agent from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency loaded up in a canoe just north of the paper mill where the waters were vibrant and pristine. As they floated past the Champion operation, the clear headwaters turned into a black discharge that bubbled around their canoe. Just past the paper mill, a local sheriff stopped the group and informed them they were trespassing on “Champion’s River.” The sheriff did not realize he had stopped the Governor of Tennessee, but he did solidify Gov. McWherter’s decision to deny the variance request. On Christmas Eve of 1988, Gov. McWherter called on his Deputy Governor Harlan Matthews to deliver the news of the variance refusal to North Carolina Governor Jim Martin. Governor McWherter’s refusal of the variance request was met with much praise in Tennessee and solidified his legacy as a steward of Tennessee’s natural resources.

I realize that link is a presser but the altercation has been reported not only in Ned’s book but in Dark Waters.

We all need water and when we blow off the tops of mountains, they don’t grow back, campers. And the bottom line is that last week, a bill that would help Tennessee called the Scenic Vistas Protection Act, sponsored by Rep. Gloria Johnson and Sen. Lowe Finney had a few setbacks. I’ll let Johnson explain:

Last week, big corporate special interests unfortunately won another delay of the “Scenic Vistas Act.” This measure would protect our mountains — and thousands of tourism jobs — from the destructive practice of mountaintop removal. This legislation is supported by Republicans and Democrats, and according to polling, a vast majority of Tennesseans agree we should save our mountaintops, yet the supermajority refuses to hear our voices

Ned threw an awkward punch at NC, documented in the biography of his life in office by Billy Stair:

When the Environmental Protection Agency ordered Champion to upgrade the plant to meet Tennessee’s water quality standards, the company threatened to close the plant and lay off all 2,000 workers. East Tennessee residents held demonstrations, and asked that Governor McWherter not renew the plant’s water quality variance. Legislators from both states traded barbs, cars with Tennessee license plates were vandalized in North Carolina, and McWherter’s office was flooded with calls from angry North Carolina residents.[7] Following an unscheduled trip to Canton, where he was confronted by a sheriff who told him he was “trespassing on Champion’s River,” McWherter announced on Christmas Day, 1988, that would not renew the plant’s water quality variance.

The environment is important, folks. And having people actively watch corporate entities who are damned determined to milk our planet leaving nothing behind should be celebrated, not vilified.

It’s up to us to make our leaders accountable but to also support our elected officials fight the good fight when they are trying to take care of our state. Sadly, their biggest enemy now is that these issues aren’t always hitting the media, and the biggest enemy is not getting a bill out of committee for discussion.




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