Gore's Pollution Problem

THE NEWS FROM EAST TENNESSEE last Christmas was hardly comforting for Al Gore. A citizens' group was about to put up a nasty billboard resurrecting a ghost from the vice president's past: the Pigeon River. A coffee-colored brew of industrial pollutants that sometimes smells like rot- ten eggs, the Pigeon flows through impoverished Appalachian towns; its troubles begin in Canton, N.C., where for the last 90 years the Champion International paper mill has dumped by-products from the bleaching of wood pulp. Gore has made his name as the savior of plundered rain forests and melting polar icecaps. But back home, many say he has shown a curious lack of zeal in doing battle with what is widely regarded as the region's biggest polluter.

The issue resurfaced late last year when EPA chief Carol Browner signed off on a North Carolina permit granting the company an exception from federal water-quality laws. For years, environmentalists had avoided confronting Gore over the Pigeon. But this time an angry grass-roots group called the Dead Pigeon River Council decided it was time to take the issue directly to Gore--and threatened to post the billboard accusing the vice president of being an environmental sellout.

When word of the protest reached Gore, he took the unusual step of asking Browner to reconsider. In the next few weeks, EPA is expected to decide whether to get tough with Champion. If it doesn't, environmentalists warn, Gore could be in for more grief. With 2000 approaching, east Tennesseans, many of them Republicans, could turn the Pigeon into the kind of embarrassment that Boston Harbor was for Michael Dukakis. ""This thing is hanging over him like an anvil,'' says environmentalist Nelson Ross.

The story of Gore and the Pigeon stretches back to 1987--when he was preparing his first run for the presidency. During his early Senate career, he was a hard-line critic of Champion's environmental practices. ""I look forward to the day when the Pigeon River will flow clear, pure and clean,'' he said. And in early 1987, EPA proposed tough new water-quality standards for the mill, and Gore demanded that the agency ""not budge one inch.'' But Champion was already plotting to flip Gore. Their leverage: the importance of the North Carolina Super Tuesday primary. In a March 1987 internal memo, a company lawyer described how the then senator Terry Sanford of North Carolina, a major Champion supporter, planned to ""change Gore's position.'' The attorney added: ""The bottom line for Gore is that he wants to be president and that, when he runs, he'll need a solid Democratic South and he'll need the help . . . of Senator Sanford.'' (Sanford confirmed to NEWSWEEK that he spoke to Gore on Champion's behalf. But he said he could ""absolutely guarantee'' that there was no deal to condition his support for Gore on the Champion issue.)

The pressure on Gore didn't end there. In the fall of 1987, his primary campaign in full swing, he was scheduled to speak at an Asheville fund-raiser for Rep. Jamie Clarke, a major Champion supporter and influential western North Carolina Democrat. But after Gore wrote yet another letter to EPA attacking Champion, Clarke said it would be ""very difficult'' to have Gore as his guest. Gore hastily faxed a note to Clarke expressing ""regret'' over any misunderstanding caused by his letter and said he would work with EPA and Champion to produce a ""common sense'' solution, according to documents obtained by NEWSWEEK. On Nov. 10, four days before the Clarke fund-raiser, Gore wrote to EPA once again--with a different message. He suggested a more permissive water-pollution standard for the mill--one that Champion had already pronounced acceptable. He appeared at the dinner and was welcomed by Champion's plant manager.

Gore's shift helped yield immediate political dividends. On Jan. 2, Clarke, Sanford and the then former governor Jim Hunt all endorsed Gore. And it's clear his new position on Champion helped Gore raise more than $137,000 in North Carolina--including about $20,000 from counties surrounding the mill. He won the state handily on Super Tuesday. Gore denied last week that politics played any role in his dealings with Champion. ""Nothing has ever moved the vice president away from his support for getting the river cleaned up,'' said Press Secretary Ginny Terzano.

In the end, the EPA ignored Gore's more lenient position, kept a more stringent water standard and forced Champion to spend millions on new pollution controls. Champion officials contend the river is much improved. Still, the Pigeon continues to run dark and smell bad. EPA officials sat down with representatives from Tennessee, North Carolina and Champion last week to hammer out a compromise. But it may all be for naught. Champion recently put the Canton plant up for sale. Perhaps a new owner will help Al Gore make good on his prediction that the Pigeon will run ""clear, pure and clean.''