AUGUSTA – Maine’s leading environmental group filed an intent-to-sue notice Thursday with International Paper, charging that IP is illegally polluting the Androscoggin River under the federal Clean Water Act.

The notice points out that IP’s legal permit to pollute expired years ago. So have permits for other mills on the Androscoggin, but those mills were not cited. That’s because, environmentalists explained, IP is the biggest polluter and contributes the most to the river’s degraded water quality. IP has also been the most reluctant to agree with the state on new pollution limits, officials have said.

Under the Clean Water Act, citizens are allowed to seek court action to stop pollution, but only six months after giving notice of their intent to sue. That six-month clock began ticking Thursday, said Brownie Carson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

The legal notice is a move not taken often, and one taken when all other measures fail, Carson said.

His organization and others have worked to encourage state lawmakers and the Department of Environmental Protection “to do their job and clean up the river,” but that isn’t happening, he said. “We’re being put in this situation because the river is seriously degraded; neither the state DEP, nor the legislators nor the EPA” is taking action. “This is to clean up the river, to get the agencies to move, and signal to people very clearly that we as citizens and organizations are not going to stand for this anymore.”

Fiona McCaul, spokeswoman for IP’s Jay plant, said Thursday her firm was only recently made aware of the notice. “We don’t comment on pending litigation,” she said.

IP lobbyist Stephen Clarkin said he too could not comment since he had not reviewed the notice.

Andy Fisk of the DEP called the legal notice “great” news. “The public has the right to say, ‘Damn it! It’s time to get these (pollution) licenses issued. We wholeheartedly agree.'”

The notice of intent to sue will bring additional public pressure for a cleaner river, Fisk predicted. It is exactly the kind of citizen involvement envisioned by the Clean Water Act, created by Rumford-born Sen. Edmund Muskie, Fisk said.

At issue in the intent to sue is the fact that IP’s permit to pollute expired years ago, so the mill has been illegally discharging material, reads a letter to IP Plant Manager Rildo Martin from lawyer Benjamin Lund of Lewiston and Nancy Marks of New York City.

The DEP and legislators are working to craft new licenses, which are expected to be issued by June 15.

But environmentalists are unhappy with the proposed standards in the licenses. The new permit will require IP to reduce pollution – which will reduce green algae in Gulf Island Pond in the summer, and mean fewer tons of dirt and pulp that eat up oxygen and degrade water quality. However, the Androscoggin would remain the dirtiest river in Maine, and would not meet its environmental classification in the Clean Water Act for another 10 years.

That’s too long, Carson said, adding the river has already waited 30 years. He complained that the state continues to negotiate with IP for more time to clean up when the river should have become cleaner years ago.

After 60 days, Carson said his group will file a lawsuit “unless the river comes into compliance soon. Ten years is illegal.”

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