July 09, 2020

DEP seeks tougher mill discharge rules

State environmental officials are proposing stringent new pollution limits for International Paper’s plant in Jay and Rumford Paper Co.’s mill as part of the decades-old struggle to clean up the Androscoggin River.

While environmental groups praised the proposed limits, an IP official blasted the draft discharge permits as “arbitrary” with no scientific basis, and said that, if applied, they could threaten jobs at both the company’s Jay and Bucksport mills.

The process of setting new pollution-control standards for the mills has been mired in allegations of illegal closed-door negotiations and political deal-making. The controversy over the mill permits was one factor in the resignation last winter of the commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, Dawn Gallagher.

Last September, the DEP granted IP and Rumford Paper Co. new discharge permits aimed at bringing the blighted Androscoggin up to federal and state clean-water standards within 10 years.

But environmental groups appealed the permits, saying the law required a cleanup timetable of 5 years. The attorney general’s office later said DEP officials violated state Freedom of Access laws by negotiating the permits in private and allowing Rumford officials to keep copies of documents.

DEP officials have since gone back and re-examined the now-defunct permits and recommended tighter pollution standards.

Under the draft permits, DEP reduced the amount of phosphorous and ortho-phosphorous IP will be allowed to discharge into the river and moved up the deadline for meeting even stricter standards from June 2015 to June 2008.

The proposed permit would also require IP to meet tougher standards on total suspended solids by January 2010 instead of January 2015.

Rumford would have to meet its total suspended solids standards immediately. The draft permit moves up by two years, to June 2008, the time frame for meeting more stringent discharge levels on phosphorous and ortho-phosphorous.

David Littell, who took over as head of DEP after Gallagher left, said Thursday that he and eight technical staff members spent five months reviewing the companies’ records to set reasonable, yet stringent, standards.

“We spent a lot of time and a lot of meetings [going] through their historic performance to make sure they are attainable,” Littell said.

But Bill Cohen, a spokesman for International Paper, said company officials are “extremely disappointed” with the draft permits. He said the company will contest the permits, which he described as containing arbitrary pollution levels based on out-dated production data.

“We don’t understand how the department got here,” Cohen said. “We don’t have any evidence or science to back up their numbers.”

Cohen said IP officials would be forced to make some “very difficult decisions” if they were unable to meet the proposed limits. One option, Cohen said, could be to scale back production at the Jay mill, which could affect production and jobs at the Bucksport mill. The Jay mill supplies pulp to the Bucksport facility, Cohen said.

The Jay mill employs approximately 1,000 people and the Bucksport mill about 800.

“We have not had any of those discussions yet of what we would do,” Cohen said.

Littell countered that the levels are based on the company’s own data and requests. He said he sent three letters to IP asking to meet with company staff to discuss technical issues but was never taken up on his offer. He said DEP staff would listen to the company’s concerns.

Several environmental organizations involved in the fight over the Androscoggin hailed the draft permits.

“I’ve been waiting all of my life for a clean river,” Neil Ward, program director for the Androscoggin River Alliance, said in a statement. “Finally, we have a draft permit that strikes a fair balance between industry and our downstream communities and would clean up the river in no more than three years.”

Steve Hinchman, attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, said in a statement that the drafts clearly show that the original permits’ 10-year timeframe was unnecessary.

For more information on the draft permits, contact the DEP’s main office in Augusta at (800) 452-1942.

The public has 30 days to comment or request a public hearing on the draft permits. Comments should be sent to Gregg Wood, Division of Water Quality Management, Bureau of Land and Water Quality, Department of Environmental Protection, 17 State House Station, Augusta, Maine 04333-0017. Comments can also be emailed to gregg.wood@maine.gov.

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