AUGUSTA – The Natural Resources Council of Maine charged Friday that the public is being cut out of determining new licenses that will dictate how much pollution can be dumped in the Androscoggin River.

But the Department of Environmental Protection disagreed, saying the public has been and will be involved. No licenses will be issued until after “a serious review” of public comment has happened, the DEP said.

At issue is whether the paper mills and the state have agreed on pollution limits before the state has reviewed final public comment.

DEP has said the licenses would be issued June 15. The last day for public comment on those licenses is June 13.

Allowing two days to review public comment “is not a serious review. That’s not the way this system is supposed to work,” said Nick Bennett, scientist for the NRCM. He called the process “window dressing.”

But the DEP explained Friday that the licenses will not be issued June 15 as planned, but will be issued later, said Andrew Fisk, director of the Bureau of Land and Water Quality.

“It’s unfortunate there’s a lot of hay being made on all these days,” Fisk said.

The public comment period, which began a month ago, will close Monday. “Then we’re going to take the time necessary to respond to the public. We believe we’ll issue the licenses by the end of June. But again, we’ll take a look at the comments.” It is DEP’s job to review public comment with the Attorney General’s Office “and respond appropriately.”

Overall, the public has been involved for months, Fisk said.

In the last year there have been both informal and formal processes involving a stakeholders group, environmentalists as well as the mills, Fisk said. In December, the state told the people who were involved what would be happening from then through June. “A Web site was developed. Everybody had an opportunity to understand the schedule, and as we went along everybody was provided input to submit formal comments to things as they came up.”

That included development of a plan for the total amount of pollution that would be allowed in the river, which led to proposed licenses on how much pollution – organic waste, phosphorous and solids leftover from the paper making – was legal.

“This is no last-minute deal. There has been huge public involvement. We’ve never had this kind of public involvement,” Fisk said.

The two sides disagreed on what the new licenses will mean.

Bennett said the proposed new licenses allow too much pollution, and the Androscoggin will not meet its own Class C environmental standard in 10 years.

DEP disagrees, and has said the new licenses will improve the river’s quality before 10 years.

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