Pigeon River Fund Gets $2,500 from Ned McWherter’s Old Campaign Account

By Megan Boehnke of the News Sentinel:
Along the banks of the Pigeon River in Newport, Mike McWherter on Saturday presented the final charitable payment from his late father’s campaign fund — a $2,500 check to help in the effort to clean up the waterway.
Former Gov. Ned McWherter, who died of cancer in April at age 80, took an interest in the Pigeon in the late 1980s after learning of high pollution levels caused by industrial waste coming from a paper mill upstream in North Carolina.
After floating the river himself in a canoe and nearly getting arrested by a local sheriff for trespassing on the property of the paper mill, McWherter denied the renewal of a water quality variance needed by the paper mill to continue operating on Christmas Eve 1988.
While the river is cleaner than it was in the 1980s, North Carolina and Tennessee have been wrangling over the plant’s pollution for decades and the two sides came to an agreement in 1998 that required the plant to clean up its wastewater. Still, despite involvement from both states and the Environmental Protection Agency, local officials and activists insist the water still isn’t as clean as it should be, affecting the quality of life of residents and the viability of tourism and rafting in the area.
When the former governor, in office from 1987-1995, returned to the river in one of his final public appearances, the younger McWherter said his father was appalled at the river’s condition.
“He specifically told me he wanted to make sure a nice donation went to the efforts to clean up the river,” the younger McWherter said.
The contribution from McWherter’s estate will go to a legal fund for a potential lawsuit against the mill, said local businessman and longtime activist Gay Webb, who is involved with the Cocke County Waterways Advisory Council.
“We’re going to hire one of the biggest, best law firms we can find because financial support seems to be here now,” Webb said Saturday.
Gordon Ball, a Knoxville lawyer who represented Pigeon River area residents in a lawsuit, said Ned McWherter was actually a “late convert” to supporting cleanup. Ball said that McWherter in 1988 as governor took steps that he saw as undermining efforts to eliminate pollution from the Champion paper mill.
The younger McWherter acknowledged that Ball was an early supporter of the cleanup efforts and that he was not always on the best terms with his father, but said the former governor was a strong supporter of cleaning up the river after witnessing the damage himself.
The contribution came from the former governor’s old campaign account, which he kept open after leaving office to create a scholarship fund and to donate to other campaigns. At the time of his death, about $43,000 remained.

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