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Black liquor is a mix of chemicals and wood waste left over from the paper making process and Maryland legislators have declared burning black liquor a “renewable” energy source. But, according to some environmental advocates, burning black liquor isn’t clean.

Environmentalists say the controversial fuel known as black liquor, which Maryland counts as renewable energy, is fouling the Potomac River around the recently shuttered Luke paper mill in Western Maryland.

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network told mill owner Verso Corp. it intends to file a lawsuit over what it said are ongoing leaks from the Allegany County facility, which closed in May after operating for 131 years. Brent Walls, the Upper Potomac Riverkeeper, and Maryland environmental regulators have documented pools of black sludge smelling of rotten eggs, believed to be black liquor mixed with coal ash, the group said.

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Black liquor is a toxic, caustic byproduct of the paper-making process that has stirred much debate in Maryland because it is classified as a renewable energy source under state law, qualifying paper mills for millions of dollars in subsidies that come out of residents’ energy bills. Mills generate black liquor in the process of making paper and use it as fuel to power their operations.

On behalf of the riverkeeper group, the Environmental Integrity Project gave Verso notice Tuesday that it intends to file a citizen lawsuit under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which requires companies to properly dispose of hazardous materials. Under the law, plaintiffs must provide such notice and wait 90 days before filing a lawsuit alleging violations in federal court.

“Verso has both a legal and a moral obligation to clean up this mess, which threatens public health and aquatic life in the Potomac,” Walls said in a statement.

Company officials could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

According to the complaint, the Maryland Department of the Environment first inspected and found signs of a leak in April, three weeks before Verso announced it would close the Luke mill, located about 20 miles southwest of Cumberland, and that an apparent leak appeared to continue as recently as September.

Water testing conducted by the department and the riverkeeper showed elevated levels of arsenic and mercury in the Potomac River, as well as pH levels that exceeded standards considered healthy for humans or aquatic life. The leak’s impact appear to be localized with downstream testing finding good water quality and healthy fish populations, said Jay Apperson, a department spokesman.

Apperson said the state and West Virginia authorities still are investigating, and that Verso is working to stop the leak. He said the leak appears to be coming from a pair of tanks on the West Virginia side of the Potomac, one of which used to hold black liquor but was taken out of service in 2008 and demolished.

Verso told Maryland officials last month it has installed sandbags and sump pumps in the pools of a black substance for disposal in a wastewater treatment plant, Apperson said. And West Virginia officials this month issued an order that requires removal of tank contents and a schedule for correction of the leak, he said.

A spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

Maryland and West Virginia authorities are working “on a potential enforcement action that may include required corrective actions and an assessment of financial penalties,” Apperson said.

For years, the Luke mill has been at the center of a debate over Maryland’s renewable energy supply, and whether fuels that produce greenhouse gases and air pollutants should be eligible for subsidies that were designed to create incentives for adoption of expensive “green” technologies. But its owner and employees repeatedly fought off proposals in the Maryland General Assembly to stop paper mills from collecting the money, stirring concerns over a loss of union jobs in a rural part of the state.

That debate became moot this year when Verso announced the mill’s closure. It employed 675 people.

A job fair is held for the 675 workers who will lose their jobs when the Luke Mill shuts down at the end of May. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)
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