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The state is suing the now closed Verso paper mill in Luke, shown in this 2017 file photo, for leaking "black liquor," a sludge byproduct of the papermaking process, into the Potomac River.
The state is suing the now closed Verso paper mill in Luke, shown in this 2017 file photo, for leaking "black liquor," a sludge byproduct of the papermaking process, into the Potomac River. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

Maryland is taking the owner of a shuttered Allegany County paper mill to court, accusing it of allowing a waste product known as black liquor to seep into the Potomac River despite regulators’ demands that it stop the contamination.

The state is asking a judge to order Verso Co., owner of the Luke Mill, to put a stop to the pollution and, potentially, to pay civil penalties.

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Black liquor, a byproduct of the papermaking process that is controversially considered to be a “renewable” energy source, has been leaking into the river since at least April, according to the complaint filed Monday in Allegany Circuit Court.

The substance, which has earned Verso and other paper companies significant renewable energy subsidies through a Maryland program, continued to seep from a riverbank even after state regulators ordered the company to address the leak, the lawsuit says.

“Verso has repeatedly discharged highly caustic and dangerous pollutants into Maryland’s waters,” Attorney General Brian Frosh said in a statement. “After numerous attempts to get Verso to comply with Maryland’s environmental laws, the company continues to allow pulping liquor to contaminate the river, harming fish and wildlife, in violation of Maryland’s laws.”

Verso officials had not yet received a copy of the lawsuit Monday afternoon, spokeswoman Kathi Rowzie said. But, she added, they “continue to work cooperatively and transparently with both Maryland and West Virginia regulatory agencies to address concerns at the facility.”

Rowzie said that cooperation includes performing a “subsurface hydrogeological study” at the direction of Maryland regulators and emptying tanks that were used to store black liquor and other substances.

Verso closed the 131-year-old Luke mill, whose operations span the Potomac on both Maryland and West Virginia shores, in May amid slumping demand for paper. Nearly 700 people lost their jobs.

The complaint says a black discharge appears to be seeping out along a 500-foot section of the river. State environmental officials speculated that it could be some combination of black liquor, white liquor and green liquor, three related substances that are made during what is known as the “kraft process” for making wood pulp, which is then used to make paper.

All three are caustic and corrosive and can cause severe burns and lung irritation. They were stored in tanks on the West Virginia side of the river, near where the black substance is seeping from the banks, the lawsuit says.

As recently as Oct. 24, water samples taken near the mill were found to contain little dissolved oxygen and to have the same alkalinity as bleach, the lawsuit says, suggesting the water could not support aquatic life. Inspectors reported seeing black sludge seeping from the riverbank as recently as Nov. 22, the lawsuit says.

The complaint also says Verso did not follow regulators’ orders to warn the public to avoid contact with the water.

Verso lawyers told state officials last month the company posted a sign that said “Restricted Area, Do Not Enter,” the lawsuit says.

The state said the pollution warrants fines of up to $10,000 for each day the discharge has continued.

Along with its use in the pulp-making process, black liquor is used as a fuel to power paper mills. It is classified as renewable energy under a Maryland law because it offsets mills’ needs to generate power using coal or some other fossil fuel. The state law allows paper mills to collect subsidies from Maryland ratepayers that are designed to encourage investment in renewable energy development.

Though the Luke mill’s closure means it can’t claim the state subsidies going forward, paper mills in Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio can continue to collect them because they are located within the same regional power grid as Maryland.

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