Legislation signed Monday by Gov. John Baldacci will require two Maine paper mills to pollute the Androscoggin River less than in years past.

The law is expected to clean up the northwestern stretch of the river to Class C water quality standards, the lowest of the state’s four river categories. After 2015, the river should be free of algae blooms, and coldwater fish should thrive.

Baldacci praised the mills for their willingness to compromise and state environmental officials for brokering the agreement. Both NewPage Corp. in Rumford, formerly MeadWestvaco, and International Paper in Jay have been operating without discharge licenses since the late 1990s.

The law sets new standards for allowable limits of phosphorous and dissolved oxygen, making them the most stringent in the state and country, said Andy Fisk, director of the state’s water quality bureau.

“We weren’t satisfied that we’d done enough and we wanted to show and demonstrate to the people of Maine improvement over a period of time,” Baldacci said.

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Dawn Gallagher said the state did not back down on the amount of pollutants that would be allowed in the river. It was flexible only in giving one of the mills more time to meet the new standards.

The legislation clears the way for the state to issue a five-year license to NewPage with legally binding agreements that dictate the discharge levels of pollutants. State officials expect to issue a similar license and agreements to IP, except that mill would be given a consent decree to exceed the five-year deadline.

Although unusual, that arrangement is legal, DEP officials said.

Critics complain it doesn’t go far enough. New pollutant levels should be written directly into both licenses, instead of in side agreements, they said. Moreover, IP should not be given a time extension.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine sued IP last month, arguing that the plant has been operating without a license and is not meeting federal water quality standards. The group was absent from Monday’s signing ceremony in Baldacci’s office. Only DEP officials and mill representatives were on hand.

Rep. John Patrick, D-Rumford, a NewPage mill worker, was the only legislator present for the event.

State lawmakers from the Twin Cities have panned the measure, saying it treats the Androscoggin like a “second-class” river.

Lewiston Sen. Peggy Rotundo had urged her fellow lawmakers to vote against the bill when she spoke on the floor of the Senate earlier this session.

“The legislation will set a lower and separate standard for the Androscoggin (River) simply at the behest of those polluting it,” she said.

Rotundo said forcing the mills to comply with the legal standards would not have triggered layoffs, given the sizable profits that fund fat salaries for paper company executives.

“This jobs versus the environment is bogus,” she said.

Although neither mill has a current license, they have complied with state regulations by applying for renewals, Fisk said.

Ordering IP to meet the new standards sooner might prompt it to use less-effective short-term technology to achieve its goal rather than finding a more sensible, long-term solution, he said.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.