RUMFORD — The NewPage paper mill in Rumford was the state's largest producer of toxic waste in 2012, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The agency's Toxic Release Inventory analysis showed that 88 facilities in Maine released about about 11½ million pounds of toxic waste directly into the air, water and land in 2012, an increase from 2011 of almost 653,000 pounds.
The NewPage mill released more than 3 million pounds of waste in 2012, the last year for which data is available, according to the report.
The mill's ranking is almost entirely due to an overstock of boiler ash containing toxic zinc compounds that the mill was unable to sell that year, NewPage spokesman Tony Lyons said. The material was disposed of in the company's Mexico landfill, he said.
"We ended up landfilling more of our ash rather than selling it, basically increasing the reporting by about 900,000 pounds," Lyons said.
The ash is produced by the mill's boilers, which are specially permitted to use discarded vehicle tires for fuel. The Rumford mill usually sells much of its ash to companies that use it as a stabilizer to cap landfills, Lyons said
The company's other waste releases are strictly within the limits of its permits and the company takes its environmental role seriously, Lyons said.
"There are three things we worry about when we report to work every day," he said, "We make sure everyone works safely, we make sure that we are operating as a responsible corporate citizen from an environmental standpoint and the third is we make paper. The first two are basically non-negotiable."
Maine was the only New England state to show an increase in toxic releases in 2012, according to the EPA.
A Toxic Release Inventory report is generated annually, based on reporting by manufacturing and energy production companies on the specific levels of waste generated at individual facilities. The overwhelming majority of waste production is legal and permitted.
According to Dwight Peavey, the TRI program coordinator for New England, the state's increase in overall waste is mainly due to the fact that 2012 was the first year the EPA began recording hydrogen sulfide as a waste. About two-thirds of the waste recorded in 2012 was hydrogen sulfide, according to the report.
The jump in waste disposal should not pose an immediate threat to people's health, Peavey said.
A boost in production at the state's pulp and paper mills in 2012 also helps account for the increase, Peavey said. Nine of the top 10 toxic waste producers in the state were pulp and paper mills, according to the report.
The fact that the majority of top polluters are paper mills makes sense considering the industry's prominence in the state, said Maine Pulp and Paper Mill Association President John Williams.
"That list comes out every year, and pulp and paper mills are always at the top of it," he said.
Energy production makes up the vast majority of the waste paper mills record, Williams said. Most of that waste is deposited in secured landfills but is still recorded by the EPA, he said. The numbers from 2012 could be viewed as an example of the industry's strong performance that year, he noted.
The Verso mills in Jay and Bucksport, which together produce more than 1.76 million pounds of waste, were ranked fourth and 10th, respectively, on the EPA's list.
Verso spokesman Bill Cohen suggested the report's findings shouldn't be taken at face value.
"If you read the EPA's own language, it says be careful about comparing years because criteria change, definitions change and none of this reports on the level of toxicity," Cohen said.
In a statement accompanying the report, the EPA is quick to note that yearly releases by facilities can vary "due to factors such as power outages, production variability, lulls in the business cycle, etc., that do not reflect a facility's pollution prevention program."
The data do not indicate the relative toxicity or the potential exposure to people living in a community with reported releases. It also does not indicate the possible illegal discharge of pollutants by facilities, according to the EPA statement.
"If I spill beer on the sidewalk, it qualifies as a toxic release," Cohen said. "You've got to put it all in context."