CANTON, N.C. (AP) -- North Carolina's water regulators are weighing in on the side of a big regional employer, saying U.S. Environmental Protection Agency demands that a big paper plant do more to avoid discoloring the Pigeon River are too costly.
The dark discharges from the Evergreen Packaging paper mill in Canton have been a disputed subject between federal officials, the state agency and environmental groups for decades, The Asheville Citizen-Times reported Friday. Communities downstream in Tennessee are also calling for stronger limits at the mill.
But the plant, which employs about 1,000 in the North Carolina mountains, has struggled for years to stay profitable. The 101-year-old plant previously was owned by Champion International, then for about eight years by its employees and a New York investment group.
"Technologically, it's possible. Anything is possible, but the cost would be astronomical. It is not feasible." said Sergei Chernikov of the state Division of Water Quality.
He was responding to a rare EPA objection to the state's proposed discharge permit, which allows the plant to release treated industrial wastewater into the river.
The EPA doesn't believe the color limits in the state's draft water permit give the company an incentive to improve, said Davina Marraccini, a spokeswoman at the EPA's regional office in Atlanta. The EPA also objects to temperature and dioxin limits outlined in the permit, and the absence of monitoring for some water quality standards.
The Atlanta office reviews hundreds of wastewater discharge permits each year and typically objects to fewer than five, the agency said. The EPA could take over authority for the discharge permit unless it can agree with state water regulators.
Environmental advocates believe standards that allow the Pigeon River to remain tea-colored aren't strict enough to protect water quality. Equipment to clarify the water could be installed at a reasonable cost, said Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina. She said the state is protecting the mill.
Downstream communities in Tennessee also want stronger discharge limits.
Pollution in the Pigeon River "has absolutely hindered us from reaching our full potential for being a viable and sustainable community," said Cocke County Mayor Iliff McMahan Jr.