AUGUSTA – On June 15, Maine paper mills along the Androscoggin River will have new licenses that dictate how much waste they can release in the river, Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Dawn Gallagher said.

The new licenses and legal agreements will force the mills to dump less, and in 10 years the river will be cleaner and meet Class C standards, officials said.

But environmentalists and paper mills said Thursday they’re not happy about the state’s proposal. Ten years is too long, environmentalists said. Ten years is too short, paper mills said.

Explaining how the state is negotiating with all parties, Gallagher called the environmental agreement “historic,” in that all agree the river will be meeting its Class C standard. Class C is the lowest environmental class, but is clean enough for fishing and swimming.

What’s not agreed to yet, Gallagher said to the Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday, is how long it will take. The DEP will issue a five-year license that at the end will not get the river into Class C, but closer. Meanwhile the state will enter into consent decrees with the mills assuring that within 10 years pollution will be reduced so that the river is meeting its standards.

Environmentalist Naomi Schalit of Maine Rivers said what DEP is proposing “is not acceptable. Why should it take so long? We know what has to be done. This is just about delaying,” she said. “Ten years is something that isn’t even serious.” The mills are “buying time so we can subsidize their operations with the health of the river.”

It’s been more than 30 years since the Clean Water Act passed, which was championed by Rumford native and former U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie. Growing up on the polluted Androscoggin River inspired Muskie to work for change in Congress. Across the country, rivers have been cleaned, but Muskie’s river remains the dirtiest in Maine, Schalit said.

There are questions whether the Clean Water Act would allow what DEP is proposing. “It certainly would get litigated at that level,” Schalit said.

The Maine Pulp and Paper Association said Thursday the mills need 15 years. If the state insists on 10 years, “it could be a deal-breaker,” said Mike Barden of the Maine Pulp and Paper Association.

The two big issues in the state’s proposal are reductions to organic waste, like paper pulp that rots and depletes water of oxygen; and phosphorous, which chokes the water by taking oxygen out and leads to green, slimy algae blooms in Gulf Island Pond.

Cutting back on organic waste – for instance IP could discharge 6,350 pounds a day by 2010 – “is more doable, because the mills are already at level levels” and release below their existing limits, Barden said.

But the phosphorus reduction would be more difficult, he said. DEP wants the mills to reduce phosphorus, which the mills use to treat their waste, “to get down to the levels that no other mills in the world have,” Barden said. “That’s going to take some time” and money. “Our preference is 15 years,” he said.

DEP scientist Andrew Fisk, director of the Land and Water Quality Bureau, said citizens who filled hearing rooms Wednesday asking for a cleaner river have valid concerns. “The Clean Water Act envisioned roomfuls of people like this. This is what it’s all about.”

Fisk explained the Androscoggin has taken longer to clean than other rivers because it’s smaller and has higher demands by four paper mills and several municipalities. Tests have shown that for every 8.6 gallons of water in the river, one gallon has been treated and re-released. “That means there’s a small amount of river doing a heck of a lot of work,” Fisk said.

The state will push for a cleaner river, Fisk said, “but if we push too hard we can for the mills to make decisions that aren’t economical.”

Meanwhile, Barden questioned whether the industry can agree with the state by June 15, the deadline set by Gov. John Baldacci.

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