AUGUSTA – Saying its patience has run out, Maine’s largest environmental group filed suit against International Paper on Tuesday alleging the paper mill has illegally polluted the Androscoggin River, violating the federal Clean Water Act.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor by the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The plaintiffs filed notice of intent to sue in May.

Brownie Carson, executive director of the council, said, “IP owes it to Ed Muskie,” the Rumford boy who became a U.S. senator and wrote the Clean Water Act, to clean the river that inspired Muskie’s environmental activism. The lawsuit asks the court to confirm that IP has violated the law, “then order them to comply with the law.”

Complying does not mean shutting the mill and jeopardizing jobs, Carson said. It would mean that IP, which announced last week it is selling its Jay plant, would have to invest to cut pollution.

There are two ways IP is violating the Clean Water Act, Carson said. “They do not have a permit now to pollute. They have not had one since 2001. It is illegal under the federal Clean Water Act to discharge into the river, or any water body, without a valid operating permit.” The state permitting process “has been an endless string of broken promises to people who live along the river. Our patience has been worn out,” he said.

IP said Tuesday that it disagrees, that it is operating with a legal permit.

“IP plans to defend this lawsuit,” said Fiona McCaul, communications manager for the Jay plant on the Androscoggin. “We haven’t received a copy of the suit yet, so I can’t comment further on defense. Our mill operates under legal and fully enforceable environment permits from the federal, state and town. We’ve done so for years.”

Maine Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Dawn Gallagher said IP is operating on an old permit that was to expire years ago. Because a new one has not been issued, “they’re allowed to operate with it until they get a new permit,” Gallagher said. That new license should be issued in August, she said.

Another way the mill is violating the law, Carson said, is with the volume of pollution it dumps in the river, something he says helps make the Androscoggin the dirtiest in Maine. IP discharges about 40 million gallons of wastewater a day. That depletes oxygen, results in native fish that cannot thrive, slimy algae blooms in the summer, and smothered creatures on the bottom of the river, Carson said. While the water quality has improved and fumes no longer peel paint off houses, some parts of the river are still too polluted to meet minimum water quality standards as required by law, he said.

IP said it is doing its part to continue improving the water. “We’re doing what we can to help make that happen,” McCaul said. IP is investing $4 million to reduce pollution, and taking steps to reduce phosphorous to eliminate algae blooms, she said.

That $4 million investment includes a new belt press that removes liquid from trees turned into paper. That allows the mill to burn the waste for fuel and prevents waste from getting into the river, McCaul said. Another example is ultra-filtration on paper machines, which allows IP to recover and reuse coatings on high-grade, glossy magazine paper. Both are examples of technology reducing pollution, making the mill more efficient, “and helping ensure the future of the mill,” she said.

There are four paper mills that discharge into the Androscoggin River. IP is the only one being sued because it is the largest polluter, and has been aggressive in resisting efforts to reduce pollution, environmentalists said.

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