AUGUSTA – To the disapproval of Lewiston-Auburn area residents who were hoping legislators would do more to improve the Androscoggin River, a legislative committee Monday unanimously rejected a bill by Rep. Elaine Makas, D-Lewiston, to force paper mills to pollute less.

Instead, the Natural Resources Committee approved another bill, with lower river standards.

That compromise bill – now recommended for passage in the House and Senate – means that the Androscoggin, the dirtiest river in Maine, will not meet its Class C environmental standard for 10 years, said Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Dawn Gallagher. But the standards could be met sooner, she said, saying that in five years the Androscoggin “will be a tremendously cleaner river.”

Environmentalists are skeptical, because the legal standards for the Androscoggin will continue to be lower than other Maine Class C rivers, something Makas was trying to change.

“I’m obviously disappointed,” Makas said, adding that the Androscoggin deserves to be clean, and working for that “was like rolling a boulder uphill.”

What the committee approved Monday “does discriminate against the Androscoggin and St. Croix rivers,” she said. Makas said the action would not be well received by communities downstream from the paper mills. “People have been coming out in droves,” she said. “This really does matter to people who live along the Androscoggin.” The river doesn’t just belong to the mills. “That is our river too.”

According to the DEP, proposed pollution limit licenses will mandate that the mills dump less suspended solids – Gallagher described that as “dirt” that depletes oxygen – and less phosphorous, which feeds slimy algae blooms, into the river.

The proposed licenses will not mandate lower amounts of organic waste from paper mills “because the mills could not meet that within five years,” Gallagher said. Organic waste also eats up oxygen and diminishes water quality.

Instead, the mills have voluntarily agreed to legally binding consent decrees to lower organic waste within 10 years so that the river will meet the same Class C standards as other rivers, Gallagher explained.

Makas was skeptical, asking how the state could force voluntary agreements. She wanted something written into the law. Otherwise, she said, 10 years from now, the Androscoggin could still be the dirtiest river in Maine. Makas asked the committee to carry over her bill to next year to ensure improvement happens. That didn’t happen.

Committee Co-chairman Sen. Scott Cowger, D-Farmingdale, told Makas the committee will monitor the Androscoggin. If improvements aren’t made, the committee could pass a bill enforcing that, Cowger said.

Citizen members of the Androscoggin River Alliance and other environmentalists blasted the committee actions. Andrea Breau of Lewiston said her community is still getting “second-class treatment.” Neil Ward of Leeds complained that residents “were not even heard.” State lawmakers are not taking their responsibility to enforce the Clean Water Act seriously, said Naomi Schalit of Maine Rivers.

The Maine Pulp and Paper Association disagreed, calling the committee’s action “a win-win” for all.

The agreements and proposed licenses allow the mills “some time to get to more stringent limits,” said Michael Barden, Maine Pulp and Paper’s director of environmental affairs. It means the mills will reduce pollution more than what is required by law, which will bring about a cleaner river, Barden said.

“The record shows the river has gotten a lot cleaner in 32 years.” Economic development along the river is a testament to that, he said.

Several committee members spoke in favor of the compromise. Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said the mills now have the responsibility to do what they said they would. “That speaks well for them,” he said. Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland, stressed that there is language that says the river will meet the same standards as other Class C rivers in 10 years.

But Rep. Jane Eberle, D-South Portland, said she was not comfortable with her voting to reject Makas’ bill and to endorse the compromise legislation.

“The fact that we aren’t doing enough and doing it soon enough is really bothering me,” Eberle said. That the state “is not treating rivers the same is really bothering me. But I’m not sure how to get to the other place.”

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