Wish the Maine Board of Environmental Protection luck. It needs it.

The nine-member citizen panel convenes this morning in Augusta, for the first of its two-part deliberations about paper mill wastewater discharges into the Androscoggin River. The Verso mill, in Jay, is the primary target of environmental groups, chiefly the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Conservation Law Foundation.

Through Aug. 16, the BEP will weigh the arguments of Verso and NRCM about the continuing cause of miserable water quality of the Androscoggin. Verso is accused of regularly flooding the river with thousands of gallons of harmful chemicals, causing filthy, unhealthy plumes to wend downstream, visible by satellite.

Verso claims partial innocence. While admitting it can further control its chemical discharges (to its fiscal benefit, critics say), the company insists that without resolutions to issues of nonpoint pollution and the troublesome Gulf Island Pond, whatever environmental measures it takes still won’t clean the river.

Years have failed to improve the Androscoggin. So has government, despite the Clean Water Act, Sen. Ed Muskie and the presence of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Experts for Verso and the NRCM can point-counterpoint this matter ad infinitum, each claiming their scientific conclusions as correct.

Faced with this history, the unenviable task of muddling through the morass of testimony, expertise and rhetoric about the Androscoggin River, and a swollen docket that includes, besides this, a little controversy under its purview named LNG demanding attention, what can this citizen review panel possibly advance?

Technically, only what it’s impaneled to do – decide whether to hold Verso to more stringent, immediate discharge requirements, as advocated by the NRCM and CLF, or allow Verso an elongated schedule of compliance for previous violations, and make several promised in-mill changes to its operation.

Symbolically, however, the BEP’s review is an opportunity to set precedent for the Androscoggin River. Whatever the decidion, the base of the BEP’s findings must be cleaning the river, by outlining a definitive path for improving the river enough so its water quality can at least be described as mediocre, instead of awful.

The board shouldn’t remand the decision to the DEP, or accept its recommendation without close scrutiny and questions. Lax regulatory oversight and allegedly cozy relationships within the agency brought these proceedings before the BEP in the first place; letting DEP re-take control now, at this stage, would be wrong.

“What’s best for the river?” is the key question. It might be cloaked in complex Total Suspended Solids and Total Maximum Daily Loads calculations, but this underlying concept is so simple, yet so crucial, for the BEP to decide.

Which it must do, and say clearly what’s right for the murky Androscoggin.

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