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Polluting paper mill in Allegany County must pay Maryland $650K, commit to cleanup, settlement says

A paper mill in Allegany County that regulators say is polluting the North Branch of the Potomac River will be required to pay more than $650,000 in fines after reaching a settlement with the state, officials said Thursday.

The settlement also sets a number of requirements for Luke Mill, a now-defunct paper plant straddling Maryland’s border with West Virginia. Namely, it must lay out for state regulators how it plans to put a stop to the pollution — and get their approval.

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“It’s a healthy shot in the arm for the Potomac River, and it opens a new chapter for the beneficial reuse of the facility,” said Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles. “We’re pleased that the company has agreed to a significant penalty, and to corrective actions to clean up the river.”

The mill, which was founded in 1888, closed in June 2019, laying off 675 workers. But the stored waste from paper production, known as “black liquor” continues to seep into the river, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.

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The liquid coming from the plant contains high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury and sulfur, according to sampling data cited in the lawsuit, and therefore is likely to have adverse impacts on aquatic life, and on humans that come in contact with it.

The lawsuit began after a fisherman reported in April 2019 that “pure black waste,” was leaking into the Potomac near the mill. About a month later, the mill announced its closure, citing a decline in the global demand for paper.

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.

By November, the Potomac Riverkeeper Network filed suit with the help of Environmental Integrity Project attorneys, hoping to force the operator, a corporation called Verso, to safely remove the black liquor stored on site and clean the pollution it had caused. Later, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office and Maryland Department of the Environment joined on.

As part of the settlement, Verso will first submit a document summarizing their investigations into pollution at the site, which state regulators will assess. Then, they’ll submit plans for short-term and long-term pollution mitigation. Those could include removing any black liquor containers, or extracting polluted groundwater or soil, said Mary Greene, deputy director at the Environmental Integrity Project.

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Brent Walls, a riverkeeper for the Upper Potomac who has closely followed the case, said the cleanup is likely to be a long process.

“It’s not gonna be done overnight,” he said. “It’s gonna take several months if not a couple of years for them to fully examine and remove and mitigate the area.”

The plant has already been required by West Virginia regulators to empty a large storage tank that contained black liquor and a lagoon used to dispose of ash byproducts of the coal-burning process. The plant had been burning both black liquor and coal to generate power.

The company will be required to pay attorney’s fees, and any costs incurred by the state in the investigation or remediation of the pollution. So far, those payments bring the total payment for the settlement close to $1 million. The company will also have to foot the bill for the riverkeepers to monitor the cleanup effort.

“That’s one main reason why we brought this suit,” Walls said. “We can all have a seat at the table to make those adjustments as needed.”

The plaintiffs are pleased with the size of the fine for the plant, too, Greene said.

“I do applaud this state for taking violations at the site seriously, and assessing a penalty that has both a punitive effect in terms of punishing the violator, but also sends a message to the regulated community,” Greene said.

Verso will also have to monitor water quality near its plant for three years after the cleanup concludes. In a statement, the company affirmed its dedication to “responsible environmental stewardship.”

“We have been working proactively and in cooperation with state regulators from both West Virginia and Maryland to mitigate the seepage and potential impacts to the environment,” read a statement from Verso Corporation. “We are hopeful that this [settlement] will aid both in protecting the water quality of the North Branch River and in encouraging the productive reuse of the Luke Mill facility.”

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh praised the settlement’s provisions Thursday.

“To call it a win isn’t really the right characterization, because this was a terrible situation for the state,” Frosh said. “We’re very glad with the settlement to be able to have things moving back to a situation where the pollution is over, toxic waste has been removed, and our natural resources are no longer threatened by this terrible chemical pollution.”

For years, the plant had been receiving millions of dollars in subsidies from the state for burning the black liquor to create energy. Environmental groups have long fought to halt the subsidies for black liquor incinerators, and free up more state dollars for boosting solar, wind and other greener forms of energy generation.

A bill working its way through the General Assembly would do just that. The bill has passed both chambers, and requires the governor’s signature.

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