AUGUSTA – A legislative committee Wednesday tabled a bill that would force paper mills to further cut pollution into the Androscoggin River. Environmentalists blasted what the state called its “compromise” for how long it would take to clean the river.

After hearing that the Department of Environmental Protection said it expects to send its proposed mill pollution license limits to the Environmental Protection Agency this week, environmentalists complained they were shut out of the negotiations.

The proposed licenses would mean the river would finally meet its Class C standard in 10 years. The mills wanted 15 years; environmentalists wanted 5 years.

Greg D’Augustine of the Androscoggin River Alliance complained that the DEP came out with its compromise “on their own without input from environmental groups” while “negotiating with polluters. For them to call it a compromise seems disingenuous.” The process of having all sides work together, initiated by Gov. John Baldacci several weeks ago, “basically failed,” D’Augustine said.

Steve Hinchman of the Conservation Law Foundation of Brunswick said he was part of the group that met with the governor, but none of what the group put on the table was in the DEP proposal.

DEP Commissioner Dawn Gallagher said there was little time, given that there was one week between the public hearings and work session. “The notion was to be inclusive; the time frame prevented that,” she said.

Andrew Fisk, director of the Land and Water Quality Bureau, said what DEP came up with does meet the Clean Water Act, and that the Androscoggin would be continually improved, with mill pollution reduced over 10 years.

DEP said the license negotiations involved the state and the paper companies, especially International Paper, “because IP said the science was not good enough” and didn’t want the state to go forward at all. IP agreed on Tuesday, Gallagher said.

One of the committee co-chairmen, Rep. Theodore Koffman, D-Bar Harbor, said he could live with the 10-year framework that DEP proposed. “The most important thing to me is that we get there.”

Adding drama to Wednesday’s meeting was strong reaction by Lewiston officials and environmentalists who bristled after Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, suggested that if the state were going to force the mills to cut back on pollution, the cities of Lewiston and Auburn should also be forced to cut back on their waste.

Two ways the river doesn’t meet its standards has to do with slimy algae blooms in Gulf Island Pond from mill discharges, and municipal waste treatment discharge during heavy storms. Martin said he wouldn’t want to swim in algae, but he considers bacteria in the river more harmful. A 600-bed hotel on the river’s shores would affect discharge levels, Martin said. “If we’re going to treat industry that way we should treat everyone that way.”

Environmentalists countered that the majority of the pollution comes from the four paper mills. Rep. Elaine Makas, D-Lewiston, complained that Martin was “retaliating against Lewiston for us standing up and being concerned about the water quality that comes to us.” She called Martin’s suggestion “a distraction and it’s very inappropriate.”

Martin said he’s not opposed to Lewiston-Auburn, but that residents “need to understand they are also polluting the water.”

Lewiston City Administrator Jim Bennett said the city is already under a DEP order, and in the next 10 years Lewiston taxpayers will spend $36 million to improve municipal wastewater discharges. “So it’s not that we aren’t on board,” Bennett said. “That’s a big number for a community that doesn’t have a whole lot of rich people.”

Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland, assured Bennett that legislators don’t want “to hurt Lewiston-Auburn.” The question is, she said, “how fast do we want a cleaner river … without hurting the economy?”

Rep. Joanne Twomey, D-Biddeford, said the cities are already under an agreement with the DEP; the industry is not. “I’m not saying pollution isn’t pollution isn’t pollution. But there is a difference.”

The committee will take up the issue again next week.

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