CANTON — Canton’s skyline is dominated by the paper mill’s towering stacks, but the most iconic stack is about to come down.
As a result of a shift to more environmentally friendly production methods, which included shifting two of the five boilers to natural gas, the stack simply isn’t needed.
Steve Hutchins has worked for Evergreen Packaging in Haywood County almost a decade and has been the company’s general manager since August 2016.
He said the final cost on the environmental upgrade project will come in at about $50 million, an estimate put forth when the project funding was first discussed.
“Now that we retired those old boilers, we don’t need to use the smokestack,” Hutchins said.
The demolition process will be a slow one, taking about three months total. The method of demolition is knocking pieces off the top, breaking them down, and hauling them off to the landfill, Hutchins said.
“We’re an operating facility, and the smokestack was built inside our facility, so you can’t just say, ‘I’m going to blow it up,’” he said.
Back in 2014, the mill was given until 2019 to come into compliance with EPA air pollution standards, which included reducing coal-related emissions. Evergreen agreed to pay up to $50 million to replace the two coal-burning boilers (which connect to the smokestack) with natural gas boilers, along with enhancing the pollution controls of the other three.
The state agreed to contribute $12 million toward the project, with funds coming from a Job Maintenance and Capital Development Fund grant, in addition to the county offering a tax break for the now higher-valued property of just over $100,000.
The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has indicated the changes should reduce the mill’s sulphur dioxide emissions by about 75 percent.
The reason for demolishing the smokestack instead of simply leaving it in place is that when it is not in use, moisture can build up that degrades the bricks, ultimately posing a safety hazard.
“You don’t know if your smokestack will do that or not, but it’s risky to keep an old smokestack standing,” Hutchins said.
The stack, which still features large blue letters reading “Blue Ridge Paper,” has had a long and interesting history, ever since getting installed back in the 1920s. A 1931 copy of “The Log,” which served as the paper mill’s publication, noted that the concrete inner lining of the stack was replaced with brick.
“The masons worked on swinging staging which was supported from I-Beams placed across the top of the 255-foot stack,” it reads.
As odd as it may sound, it was a big deal that no men were hurt during the intense operation.
“The hazardous work was done without an accident which indicated every foreman and man on the job exercised the caution necessary for accident prevention,” the article reads.
Another issue of “The Log” from the 1950s, which noted the stack is 253.6 feet tall from base to top, further glamorized the men who performed maintenance at that lofty altitude above the industrial area below.
“They’re accustomed to all types of tough duty in many parts of the mill, but this one’s a real nerve-tingler,” it reads, also noting that men were paid double-time for every minute spent on the stack.
“Still, not every one would jump at this opportunity,” it continues. “There are some who probably wouldn’t tackle this job at any figure. But most of the riggers, grown and accustomed to such work, consider it ‘just another job.’”
Of course, in more recent years, when work has been required, OSHA has ensured jobs are completed in a safer manner.
But as Evergreen shifts its focus to become more environmentally friendly, Hutchins noted that he hopes the business can continue to move in a direction that betters the community.
“It's very important to us and the people that work here to be good neighbors,” he said. “We all live and work here, so we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing.”
(Editor's note: Readers with stories related to the paper mill's smokestack are encouraged to share them by sending a letter to The Mountaineer, 220 N. Main St. Waynesville, or sending an email to email@example.com)