Al Gore: A Case Study

Friday, July 30, 1999

In the early 1990s, the Champion Paper plant in Canton, North Carolina, provided jobs for well over a thousand workers. It also dispenses industrial wastes into the Pigeon River. The Environmental Protection Agency placed pressure on the plant in the late 1980s; in 1988, the presidential campaign year, Al Gore intervened on Champion’s behalf. But in the 1990s things were different. In particular, environmentalists and their friends in the media were determined to use the Champion plant as a litmus test of Gore’s continuing commitment to environmental issues.

Since the early 1990s, the EPA and Champion Paper in Canton had more or less achieved a modus vivendi. The company was still pumping water with 250–400 units of color—the equivalent of 86,000 pounds—into the Pigeon River each day. But by the time the water reached Hartford, Tennessee, it was down to 50 units—clean by EPA standards.

The improvements had not come cheaply. By 1994 Champion had spent $330 million modernizing its plant. This reduced its water intake by 35 percent and its color discharge by 75 percent and further resulted in far less chlorine and dioxin discharged into the river. In the process, some seven hundred jobs were phased out, leaving the company with 1,300 workers. Champion warned that expensive new standards imposed in an effort to achieve marginal river quality improvements would force it out of Canton altogether. With annual wages averaging $48,000 per employee, that was a matter of dire concern to those directly or indirectly dependent on the plant for their livelihoods.

But by now the cause had been adopted by the national environmental movement, particularly the well-heeled American Canoe Association headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia, and its high-powered, politically sophisticated director, David Jenkins. Jenkins knew that east Tennessee, into which the Pigeon River flowed, was overwhelmingly Republican and that elected officials there were not a bit averse to embarrassing Vice President Gore. In addition, the governorship was now in the hands of Republican Donald Sundquist. When, in October 1996, North Carolina, with EPA approval, gave Champion five additional years in which to continue operating under the standards applicable since 1991, Jenkins invaded east Tennessee with the idea of winning the fight once and for all. “We got every mayor, every city councilman, every county official, every state representative from the area to endorse strict color standards in North Carolina, not thirty-seven miles downstream in Tennessee,” says Jenkins. “We got Governor Sundquist’s backing, too. The national media got hold of the issue. Getting EPA to reopen the case and tighten the standards became a test of Gore’s commitment to the environmental movement.”

Newsweek slugged its story “Gore’s Pollution Problem.” Knoxville mayor Victor Ashe—Gore’s 1984 Senate campaign opponent—joined the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission in urging the state to appeal the EPA ruling. Columnist Frank Cagle of the Knoxville News-Sentinel charged that, during the 1988 campaign, “Gore was running for president and sold out his Tennessee constituents for North Carolina votes in the Super Tuesday primary.”

“Gore’s alleged hypocrisy on tobacco cannot compare to his hypocrisy on the environment and the issue of cleaning up the Pigeon River,” the columnist wrote. “Gore has gotten a free ride on the Pigeon River because environmental groups are uneasy about attacking the poster boy for environmental causes. I think it’s time that the environmental groups that have given Gore so much support and so much cover on this issue call in their debt.”

By now the cause had been adopted by the national environmental movement. Gore responded to the pressure, telling the director of the EPA to urge reconsideration of the Champion permit.

Gore responded to the pressure, telling EPA director Carol Browner, his former staffer, to urge reconsideration of the Champion permit. Talks began involving the EPA, Champion, and North Carolina and Tennessee officials. Before they were completed, Champion announced that its Canton plant was for sale. The company subsequently reached agreement, approved by the EPA, to meet the fifty-unit standard by the time the flow reached a site called Hepco, a North Carolina encampment consisting of a dock and a few shacks, about seventeen miles downstream. After Hepco, two pristine streams merge with the Pigeon, which then runs through a big lake dammed for electric power. By the time it reaches Hartford, Tennessee, the color unit indicator was expected to read in the twelve to twenty range.

Jenkins of the American Canoe Association was delighted. “Gore came through for us this time,” he says. But for the workers at Champion, the result was ominous. Early in 1998 they put in a bid for the plant, pledging their pension funds as collateral for the effort to save their jobs. The company found the bid too low and rejected it.