AUBURN – As public hearings begin today about how much pollution should be allowed in the Androscoggin, environmentalists say that new and proposed limits wouldn’t improve the river because they’re not much different than what the mills are already discharging.

At the opposite side is the Verso mill in Jay, formerly IP, which says that the state isn’t considering pollution from farms and other nonpoint sources. “You can’t just point the finger at the mills,” said one mill spokesman.

Meanwhile, DEP Commissioner David Littell defends what his department is recommending, saying if the more stringent limits are accepted, it would mean a much cleaner river in five years.

When the Board of Environmental Protection meets today, it will begin six days of hearings over two weeks at the Hilton Garden Inn Riverwatch in Auburn.

Up for review will be the 2005 license issued by former DEP Commissioner Dawn Gallagher, and 2006 recommended pollution limits from her replacement, Littell, along with appeals and objections to both.

If the department’s new recommendations were to be implemented, “It will make a difference in the Gulf Island Pond and the river,” Littell said Tuesday. “It will improve it.” Within five years, the river would be complying with pollution laws, Littell said, or meeting the river’s Class C standard, the lowest standard.

The department’s recommendations now have no legal standing. They are merely recommendations the board can choose to act on.

But the Natural Resources Council of Maine said Tuesday that both the existing Gallagher license and proposed Littell recommendations wouldn’t clean the river.

“This would do nothing, because the mills already discharge below the limits proposed in this permit,” said Nick Bennett of the NRCM. “That’s why we’ve appealed the Verso license.”

NRCM said it is appealing only the Jay mill’s license, “because the Rumford mill has significantly cleaned up its act.”

Bennett said he hopes the citizen board “cleans up the river. That’s what the board is there for. When the normal DEP process fails and DEP clearly can’t issue a license that will clean up the river, it’s the board’s job to take over and make sure the laws are upheld.”

Verso mill spokesman Bill Cohen disagreed.

“We want folks to understand that the river is not as bad as some would to make it out to be. And we now have data collected the past two summers that show while the mills do contribute to some of the loading (polluting), there are other factors.”

Nonpoint pollution from farms and general runoff “is also a huge contributor to some of the issues in the river.” Cohen said the Verso mill “recognizes we have to do more, and we will.” But other kinds of non-mill pollution should also be considered.

The “total maximum daily load” – the amount of pollution officials deem the river can stand – isn’t right and needs to be corrected, Cohen said.

Verso appealed the 2005 license not because it is unhappy with it, but because that was the only way for the mill to object to the department’s recommended pollution standards, Cohen explained.

The hearing begins at 9 a.m. today. During the first day, parties appealing the licenses will speak, then answer questions from the board.

On Thursday a public comment hearing will begin at 6:30 p.m.

Hearings continue on Friday, as well as May 8, 9 and 10.

The board hopes to issue decisions on the licenses, DEP’s recommendations, and multiple appeals, in the fall.

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