AUGUSTA – Maine paper mills along the Androscoggin River will have less time to reduce the amount of water pollution they produce if draft changes to their discharge permits are accepted.
The proposed modifications, released Thursday by the state Department of Environmental Protection, would cut at least in half – from 10 years to within five years – the timeline for International Paper in Jay and NewPage in Rumford to meet limits on the amount of materials they can release into the river. Some of the new restrictions would go into effect immediately and others in about two years.
IP and NewPage received new discharge permits in September, as did Florida Power and Light, which owns a dam on the river, and the Livermore Falls wastewater treatment plant.
The permits came after a contentious and controversial process that saw then-DEP Commissioner Dawn Gallagher forced to resign, a finding that the agency had violated the state’s freedom of information law and multiple legal challenges.
In December, DEP began to re-examine the permits.
“We looked at all of them,” said David Littell, who became acting commissioner in December and was confirmed for the job earlier this year. “We are modifying IP’s and Rumford’s.”
The review, Littell said, was triggered by new information that the DEP received concerning the amount of phosphorus released by the mills, which showed they were already meeting standards that the permit required 10 years down the road.
“We looked at the data and said, jeez, the mills are meeting them now. So that’s when we went in and took a good look, but we took a look at everything,” Littell said.
In addition to the standards on phosphorus, the DEP found that the mills could also meet substantially tougher requirements on suspended solids and biological oxygen demand, which affects the ability of the river to sustain plants and fish.
“The analysis showed that we could clean up the river faster,” Littell said. “We’ll achieve the water quality standards sooner than we would under the permits that were issued in September.”
A representative from IP disagreed with Littell’s assessment.
“We’re extremely disappointed,” said Bill Cohen, an IP spokesman, who had received the proposed changes Thursday afternoon and hadn’t had time for a thorough review. “This continues to feel confrontational and litigious to us.”
Included in the information released by DEP are graphs that show that the mills should be able to meet the compressed timeline and, Littell said, illustrate that the tougher permits are based on good science.
Further, he said, the limits on biological oxygen demand were based on a 1999 letter from IP that was found last summer during an examination of DEP’s files. The letter, which had gone undiscovered during much of the debate surrounding the river, asked for discharge levels consistent with Thursday’s proposed changes.
“Based on historic performance, they can meet it,” Littell said. “IP said they could do this in 1999.”
IP also invoked science in defense of a longer compliance schedule.
“We think it’s critical that they understand the limited data that they’ve considered,” Cohen said. “We continue to feel that these are arbitrary limits and that they have no regards for how the Jay mill operates. These changes do nothing to advance the notion that the permits should be fair and based on science.”
Not long into Cohen’s defense of IP’s practices, the conversation turned to the new rules’ economic impact.
“We’re talking about 2,000 jobs,” Cohen said. “We recognize our responsibility to clean up the environment, but we have to do it in a way that allows the mills to stay open and compete in a difficult market.”
Cohen could not estimate what it would cost IP to meet the tougher standards.
Littell, however, was prepared for the question of jobs and costs. The permits, he said, don’t specify how the mills go about meeting the standards, which gives them several options. He said that NewPage has already made many of the needed improvements to meet the standards.
Will it cost jobs?
“No. Certainly not,” Littell said. “They can meet these limits. The Rumford mill is meeting them currently, and we anticipate they’ll be able to continue to do so. The IP mill is meeting two out of three.”
Messages left at the NewPage mill in Rumford were not returned Thursday.
Environmental activists greeted the proposed changes with cautious optimism Thursday, warning, too, that they had had little time for a full review.
“What this really signals is a movement from a license issued under political pressure to a license issued on science and data,” said Neil Ward of the Androscoggin River Alliance, which advocates for a cleaner river. “We’re pretty pleased. This appears to be movement in the right direction.”
Brownie Carson, the executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, measured his response carefully. “The better timelines and reduced levels of discharge are steps forward, but we’ll have to study it much further to see if this would clean up the river.”
The proposed modifications to the permits trigger an automatic 30-day public comment period. IP said Thursday it will also request a public hearing to formalize the discussions over the new permits and will fight their implementations.
Littell said the DEP will consider all information received during the comment period and incorporate any necessary changes.
The new permits can also be appealed to the Board of Environmental Protection and then the courts.
“With the 30-day public comment period, if there are issues and questions surrounding the permits, then there will be an opportunity for those to be addressed,” said Gov. John Baldacci early Thursday afternoon. “At the end of the day, we’re going to make the river cleaner and the economy stronger.”