AUGUSTA – If the Jay mill invested $25 million, it would discharge less pollution into the Androscoggin River and boost profits, ensuring survival of the mill, an expert testified Thursday before the state Board of Environmental Protection.

To achieve that, Verso must get rid of the mill’s wastewater treatment basin, which expert Neil McCubbin of Canada described as a “monster” and “an environmental time bomb.”

Mill spokesman Bill Cohen countered that the mill is already taking steps recommended by McCubbin. But other actions, such as replacing the basin, would cost up to four times what McCubbin projects, he said. The basin is not as bad as what McCubbin is making it out to be, he added.

McCubbin’s testimony came during the last day of hearings into how much wastewater Verso should be allowed to discharge into the Androscoggin River.

Environmentalists are contesting a pollution permit the Maine Department of Environmental Protection issued in 2005, saying the license would not do anything to improve the river and make it fishable and swimmable, as mandated by the federal Clean Water Act.

Verso is objecting to 2006 DEP recommendations calling for less wastewater discharge. The citizen members of BEP will decide what action, and what limits, to enforce.

‘Basin full of sludge’

Speaking as an expert witness for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, McCubbin was introduced as a pulp and paper engineering consultant who has worked in more than 100 mills around the world, including Jay’s.

On Thursday, McCubbin described what he said were cost-effective ways Verso could cut the thousands of pounds of wastewater it releases into the Androscoggin.

One deals with materials the mill uses to make coated paper. Making coated paper is like painting paper with latex paint, he said. The best mills lose very little coating chemicals; it stays on the paper. “But the loss is very high at this mill,” McCubbin said.

When there’s a production problem, the white coating is released into the river and creates plumes that on some days stretch for miles in the river. If the mill recovered the coating material, it would cut discharges and save thousands of dollars, he said.

Another problem is the mill has “a gigantic basin full of sludge” that is supposed to hold and treat wastewater, he said. It’s too large and isn’t effective, McCubbin said. There’s too much gunk and an “enormous” amount of phosphorus in the basin – which gets into the river. Even if the mill perfected inside operations, the mill doesn’t stand a chance of cutting discharges, he said. A lot of mills had a similar treatment system in the ’70s, but have since replaced them, he said.

McCubbin recommends Verso fill the basin and build a new treatment system that does a better job of removing biologicals before discharging into the river.

Preventing coating chemicals from getting into the river and building a new treatment system would take two to three years, and cost $25 million, he estimated.

That $25 million isn’t much when considering the mill’s annual sales are $700 million, its annual salaries are $160 million; and annual supply costs are $400 million, he said. The two problems make the Jay mill expensive to run. Mills with high operating costs are more likely to be shut down, McCubbin said.

Making the mill more efficient “will improve the environment and protect jobs.” He recommended the BEP give Verso a stricter permit to help it “do the right thing.”

Mill: That won’t work

Verso lawyer Jamie Kilbreth said what McCubbin is recommending “doesn’t work.”

Mill spokesman Cohen said McCubbin spoke about “lots of generalities based on what he thinks industry has done.” McCubbin made estimates without exact information from the mill, in part because several years ago he refused to sign a confidentiality agreement.

Not having the right information means his estimates are off, Cohen said.

While McCubbin said the mill could replace the water treatment basin for $12 million, the mill estimates the cost between $30 million and $60 million, Cohen said. “For example there are several brooks running through the mill. We’d have to get DEP permission to deal with the brooks. He’s made no consideration of that.”

When asked if the basin is an “environmental time bomb,” Cohen said no. “We’ve got some witnesses who say it’s not as bad as he chooses to make it.”

The mill does not plan to get a new treatment system until after other changes are made and the effects are known, Cohen said. “We’re going to keep going, but we want to do it in a logical order.”

Verso agrees with McCubbin that the mill can save money by keeping paper coating materials from the river. “This year we have $3 million in our capital budget to get that coating out of our discharge. That’s the plume,” he said.

Now that plume happens about 20 days a year, Cohen said. “We’re hoping to make it zero.”

The BEP is not expected to make any recommendations until the fall.

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