AUGUSTA – After the Attorney General’s Office said an amendment passed by the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee would be illegal under the federal Clean Water Act, the committee junked the language Thursday.

The amendment came from International Paper, which said it was offering a technical change to a bill to ensure the company would not get slapped with a notice of violation for not meeting future environmental standards.

Environmentalists and the attorney general said language in the amendment would have restricted the state’s ability to enforce pollution laws. That was not the committee’s intent, the chairmen said.

So the committee unanimously voted to replace the IP amendment with a new one from the state Department of Environmental Protection. Language that could have restricted enforcement “is all gone,” said Andy Fisk, director of DEP’s Bureau of Land and Water Quality.

The bill, which sets the stage for new pollution license limits issued for paper mills on the Androscoggin River, will soon head to the House and Senate.

L.D. 1450 allows a five-year license for the mills, followed by five-year consent decrees. Environmentalists complained that what the state is doing is creating 10-year licenses.

That is unique, Fisk said, adding that it’s “the first time we’ve done it,” but he said it’s within the state’s authority.

New pollution limits in the licenses will bring the river to its Class C classification within 10 years, Fisk said. By 2015 there will be marked improvements: no summer algae blooms because of reduced phosphorus, and higher oxygen levels in the water from less dirt and paper pulp from the mills. Both will make the water cleaner, clearer and healthier. “This is a win,” Fisk said.

Neil Ward of the Androscoggin River Alliance disagreed.

“We’ve waited 30 years for our river to be cleaned up. It’s not being cleaned up,” Ward said. “We’ve been to the Legislature. We’ve been to the governor. No one seems to be doing it.” The group opposes waiting another 10 years, he said. “It’s unfortunate that it takes a lawsuit to clean up the Androscoggin,” he said, referring to a notice of intent to file a lawsuit that the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Natural Resources Defense Council issued Thursday to IP.

Committee member Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, echoed Fisk, calling what finally came out the committee “a tremendous win” for the river. “There are some people who don’t see it that way,” Martin said. Remember, he said, the paper mills have been operating without pollution licenses for years. “What we now have, finally, is a time period when this will be taken care. It would have been nice to have it implemented tomorrow morning. But everyone knows what the impact of that would have been,” Martin said.

The Natural Resources Committee will annually review the Androscoggin cleanup, the committee co-chairman, Sen. Scott Cowger, D-Hallowell said.


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