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Pigeon River Recovery Project


When the Champion Paper Mill at Canton, North Carolina started operating in 1908, it sucked in millions of gallons from the Pigeon River…using over 90% of the water flow. What entered the mill as a clear, clean stream left a toxic, dirty mess…killing anything living in the water for miles below the mill. One resident said, “When they first turned that water on it was as black as tar…they cleaned the fish out of the river.”

For years the pollution flowed freely, making it’s way downstream into Tennessee where the river was often brown and smelly. By the mid 1990’s improvements at the mill started the process of reducing the pollutants and restoring the river. Today it is much healthier, but there is still work to be done. Wild Side Guide Ken Tucker takes us out to Pigeon, where biologists are trying to restore some of the fish and mussel species that once lived there as part of the Pigeon River Recovery Project.

By early 2015, over 37 thousand fish had been released back into the river. Twelve species, including the gilt darter, the mountain brook lamprey, and the stripetail darter have been successfully reintroduced in Tennessee. But the news is not so good for the mussels brought back to the river. While the ones above Walters Dam, in North Carolina, are doing well, those below the dam aren’t growing much, don’t appear to be reproducing, and have a high death rate. Research efforts are now focusing on the source of these problems. Possible causes are rapid changes in water level and currents from dam releases upstream, as well as impacts from local farming and urban activities.

From show 2912