Sunday, August 3, 2008

Crawfish or Cancer? On the Pigeon River, your guess is as good as mine

Ahhhhh…. There’s nothing like the crystal clear waters of a mountain river or stream in the Great Smoky Mountains. An abundance of trout fishing, small children cooling off after a hot day of play, and a few deer or even a bear might be seen while visiting a river in the Smokies. Sounds great doesn’t it?

Well, not if you visit the Pigeon River downstream from Evergreen Packaging Group/Blue Ridge Paper Products, formerly known as Champion Paper Mill, in Canton, North Carolina. Since 1908 (100 years ago!), the mill in Canton has been dumping hazardous chemicals and toxins into the Pigeon River, which flows through Western North Carolina and into East Tennessee.

In my hometown of Sevierville, TN the Little Pigeon River, which flows directly from the main and larger Pigeon River, runs directly through the city park and from all my memories of attending birthday parties and other events at the pavilions next to the river we never got the chance to even step close to the water. There were (and still are) signs up stating that there are possible carcinogens in the water and to enter at our own risk. Because our parents didn’t want us to get cancer before our 13th birthday or sprout an extra arm or leg, we had to stay away (which is very hard to do when you are just a kid - all you want to do is throw rocks into the river or put your feet in to see what might crawl out from under the rocks…. but apparently that’s risky when you might catch cancer instead of a crawfish!).

Fortunately, our Governor has realized that something still needs to be done about the river, even if it’s a hundred years late. He signed a bill requiring stricter water testing in the Pigeon River within a quarter mile of the Tennessee-North Carolina border earlier this year.

For the record, one concern that I still have is with regards to the logistics of water testing. It is very difficult to measure pollutants in rivers. Particularly, it is problematic to assume that pollutants are equally distributed across an area of the body of water. Measuring pollution levels in water bodies typically involves the investigation of non-uniformly mixed pollutants.

Imagine a slow-moving part of the river that looks very dark and has dirty, stinky foam floating on top. Then imagine where the water starts to look cleaner downstream, typically near fast-moving rapids. The slow-moving water is more concentrated because the pollutants have had time to settle. This could also happen at manmade or beaver-constructed dams. Because of this problem, testing the water may never really give us an accurate assessment of how concentrated pollutants may be in specific parts of the river.

My hopes are that they are collecting samples in several different parts of the river to gauge a more accurate estimation of the water quality. The next step that our Governor should consider is how to receive compensation for the poor water quality in the Pigeon River from the North Carolina-based company. My suggestion, after ample water testing has been completed, would be to start with a simple bargaining solution (a la Coase). If that doesn’t work, increased government intervention may be necessary.

The Pigeon River may look pristine and clean from afar, but look out – there could be other “stuff” besides crawfish swimming in there. What will you catch when you visit the Pigeon River? Well, your guess is as good as mine!

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