AUGUSTA — Steve Arnold, plant manager at the Paris Utility District, said the analogy best describing the quasi-municipal entity’s request to relax their standard on the amount of copper permitted to be discharged into the Little Androscoggin River is like driving on the highway.

“Everyone’s always been driving 80 safely, now they’re changing the speed limit so you don’t get penalized for it,” Arnold said. 

The comments came outside the public hearing before regulators Thursday morning concerning the sewage treatment facility’s request for a site-specific exemption from state and federal standards on the concentration of copper flowing into the river after treatment. 

The Little Androscoggin River flows from Paris, through Oxford and Mechanic Falls before joining the Androscoggin River near the South Bridge in Auburn. 

The PUD is asking the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to allow the facility to deviate from state standards and be granted permission for a higher cap on the concentration of copper coming out of facility.

They contend that the new standard is scientifically proven to not harm residents or the environment, but that without relaxing it, they would consistently bump against the bar, resulting in fines. 

The board, which received testimony as part of a procedural process for granting site-specific exemptions for more than an hour, is expected to make a ruling at a later date. 

If approved, Paris would become the third local entity to receive exemption from a state-wide law since the program began in 2005, according to Gregg Wood, from Maine DEP’s waste-water licensing office. 

The standards were originally set when Maine adopted the federal standards on water quality in the 1970s following passage of the Clean Water Act.

The PUD is built to handle many more times the water sewage than currently accepted, Arnold said, as it was constructed in the 1970s to service the town’s industrial users.

When the A.C. Lawrence Leather Company closed its doors in 1985, the facility was left with approximately 1,000 residential users.  

At the hearing, Arnold testified that inflowing raw sewage contains copper at approximately 150-300 parts per billion. The water goes through a variety of treatment procedures before the solids are separated and are loaded into a storage container.

After treatment, the peak copper concentration measured is approximately 40 parts per billion. Under its current license, the ceiling for concentration rates is 20-23 parts per billion, Arnold told regulators. 

Lacking industrial users, most of the copper enters the sewage pumped to the facility from brake pads, medicine, vitamins and other household-products washed down the drain. 

Permitting the exemption, Arnold said, would realign standards with sound, scientific data gathered by independent consultants hired after the PUD was fined $30,000 in 2009 for violating its license. 

Patrick Gwinn, from the Portland-based water-quality analysts Integral Consulting Inc., told the board that his group studied the effect copper levels would have on river chemistry.   

The study, which was done in conjunction with DEP and EPA, found the river can safely absorb higher rates before the copper molecules begin binding to fish gills.

“This isn’t something I’m just pulling off the shelf,” Gwinn said. 

Wood, who also testified Thursday, told the board that criteria imposed around the country may not apply at a local level. 

“Numerically there appears to be an issue, but in reality there’s none,” Gwinn said. 

No discussion with other groups seeking an exemption for other materials has taken part, in part because the lengthy review process undertaken tries to pinpoint if the facility can be improved first; the PUD completed a $10.5 million overhaul completely updating its facility in 2010.

“It’s a big deal. These things are issued very rarely,” Wood said.

The standards which form the state statute do not appear to be in any immediate threat of change, he said.

“It would take a significant amount of money to go around the state…to develop an alternative criteria based upon each stream and river. We just don’t have the horsepower to do that.” 

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