LEWISTON — On a recent August afternoon, outdoorswoman and Bates College retiree Judith Marden was on the Androscoggin River, in Gulf Island Pond, learning to paddleboard.

“I’m not very good at it,” the 69-year-old said with a laugh. The first time Marden tried “I fell off four times. I didn’t worry about falling into the Androscoggin. My toes aren’t going to fall off.”

Like many, she plans to be on the river during the weekend Great Falls Balloon Festival launches.

President of the Androscoggin Land Trust, Marden lives in Greene and swims and paddles in the river. “It’s really beautiful. Every year it gets better and better. You could be in the Allagash,” she said.

While many echo her observation about how the river has improved, there’s a reason why there’s never been a big announcement celebrating the Androscoggin finally meeting its Class C water quality standard.

It still isn’t there.

But it’s getting close, only a quarter mile off.

The culprit: Gulf Island Pond

The section of the 160-plus-mile river not meeting Class C is small and getting smaller, less than a quarter of a mile on the bottom of Gulf Island Pond during the summer, said Mickey Kuhns, director of the Bureau of Land and Water Quality in the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

The pond is created by the Gulf Island hydroelectric dam in Lewiston-Auburn, owned by Brookfield Renewable Energy.

“Twenty years ago we were talking about significant portions of Gulf Island Pond not meeting standards,” Kuhns said. Today “the worse case in the Androscoggin River is Gulf Island Pond at the low spot. We are slowly seeing an improvement.”

The Class C regulation says all of the river must have a minimum amount of oxygen in the water to support fish. During part of the summer, where the pond is deep, it doesn’t meet that oxygen requirement. The pond floor is covered with guck, accumulated pollution from mills that’s been there for years.

What the paper mills are now dumping into the Androscoggin isn’t causing the problem, according to DEP. The problem is that it takes time for the existing guck to rot away and stop consuming oxygen.

“Do we see it as a compliance issue?” Kuhns said. “No.”

Meanwhile the state has cut the amount of phosphorous the mills can discharge. In the past, phosphorous had created slimy, unattractive algae blooms in the river. Because of improvements from dischargers and non-point runoff, there hasn’t been an algae bloom since 2004, Kuhns said.

DEP will continue to monitor water quality, Kuhns said, stressing there should be “more celebrating about where we’ve come from in such a short amount of time.”

Even though the river is classified as C — the lowest allowed — “Maine’s standards are high,” he said. “Our lowest standard is other places’ highest standard. We have extremely clean water in this state.”

In the ’60s a lack of environmental laws meant the Androscoggin was used as a sewer. It was among the most polluted rivers in the nation, motivating Maine’s U.S. Sen. Ed Muskie, who grew up in Rumford along the river, to sponsor — and then fight for — the landmark federal Clean Water Act.

The river was dirty, smelly. Dead fish floated. “People closed their windows at night because the fumes were so bad,” Kuhns said. “It was known for peeling paint off houses. If you said then, ‘Let’s hold a bass fishing tournament on Gulf Island Pond,’ as people now do, people would have thought you were crazy. Today it’s a beautiful piece of water.”

NRCM: “C” not good enough

In the latest environmental permits issued to the two paper mills on the river, Verso in Jay and NewPage in Rumford, the amount of pollution they can discharge was not reduced.

That the river isn’t meeting Class C, and pollution loads haven’t been cut, doesn’t sit well with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which has long advocated for a cleaner Androscoggin.

Not only should all of the river meet Class C by now, the state should be working toward classifying it as Class B, said NRCM staff scientist Nick Bennett.

“The difference from Class C and Class B is enormous,” Bennett said. “Class B is so much better. We need to think about this. Maine cares. We’re the clean water state. This river was the inspiration” for the Clean Water Act. “To say Alabama doesn’t have good water standards is missing the point.”

It’s important for all of Gulf Island Pond to have enough oxygen to support fish and other wildlife, Bennett said.

“The deeper areas is where fish like trout need to go to stay out of the warm water. It’s incumbent upon DEP to issue licenses that bring that stretch of the river into attainment. They haven’t done it yet,” he said.

Not reducing how much pollution can be dumped is a problem, Bennett said. “If you aren’t meeting standards then you should change things. What they are saying is, ‘Well, the problem is historic so we’re going to ignore it,’” he said.

There are a number of organizations that discharge into the river, including municipal water and sewer authorities, and then there’s non-point runoff, which includes rainwater. But the biggest polluters are still the mills, Bennett said.

What’s getting dumped?

Paper mills no longer discharge pollutants like dioxin in toxic levels, and have cut how much they dump into the river in recent years. Still, the mills continue to discharge tons of treated wastewater containing phosphorus and organic waste every day.

The waste can deplete oxygen, degrade water quality and stress fish, but the amounts allowed “are not injuring the most sensitive creatures in the water,” Kuhns said.

For instance, the Verso mill can release 4,400 pounds of treated organic wastewater a day into the river; they’ve been discharging 3,100 pounds a day, Kuhns said, down from 1991 when then-International Paper discharged 17,000 pounds a day.

Pollution limits weren’t lowered in the latest environmental permits issued by Maine’s DEP because it wouldn’t do anything to help the river meet its classification, Kuhns said. The mills’ wastewater discharges are meeting Class C standards, “sometimes Class B. That shows the mills are to a point that they’re not having the impact they had thirty or forty years ago.”

Considering there were no fish swimming 50 years ago, “the Androscoggin is a success story,” Kuhns said.

Today 830 workers are employed by NewPage, 850 workers at Verso. While the paper industry has cut jobs, Maine has 7,300 paperworks and is the second largest producer in the country, according to the Maine Pulp and Paper Association. The average paper mill worker’s annual salary is $64,800, according to the association.

If the mills are going to make paper and provide hundreds of jobs, “there’s going to be a certain amount of wastewater that’s going to come out,” Kuhns said.

River users happy with water quality

The river won’t be upgraded to Class B in the near future for several reasons, Kuhns said: the dam on Gulf Island Pond, discharge from the mills, municipalities and non-point runoff, and a warmer river caused by climate change. Warmer water makes it harder to achieve healthy oxygen levels.

People may not like “having the lowest classified water in their town. But Class C is good,” he said.

A few who use the river agreed, including Marden, who moved to Greene in 1975. In her early years in Greene the river was close, but so dirty “nobody cared about it.”

In 1986 she got a kayak. Bates College crew teams started practicing on the river. In the late ’80s the river was improving, “but there were still algae blooms in the summer. “There were a lot of things floating.”

Marden said she’s content with how the river is today and its Class C standard, saying the state has done a good job.

“I wouldn’t scuba dive at the bottom of Gulf Island Pond, but I do go swimming.” When Bates alumni visit, they canoe “and leap off the dock,” Marden said.

Mike Auger is executive director of the Androscoggin Land Trust, an organization that sponsors paddling on the river. Auger, 48, grew up in Auburn and remembers how, in the ’70s, the river was discolored, covered with foam.

Many older residents remember that too, and are initially reluctant to get on the river. “Part of our job is to bring people out” with “Paddle After Hours” and balloon festival excursions, he said. Once people experience the river, “they love it. They come back.”

Auger said his group is pleased with the river’s progress. “Is it pristine? No,” Auger said. “But you can fish, kayak. Most communities would kill to have a resource like this.”

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Along the Androscoggin River

Maine has four water quality classes: AA, A, B and C.

The Androscoggin River is Class C, the lowest allowed by law. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection says while Class C is the lowest, it’s still good, and one that supports fishing and swimming.

Maine’s waters have become cleaner in recent decades.

In 1987, 13 percent of Maine waters were Class C. “Today it’s 1.1 percent, almost entirely the Androscoggin River. It’s a very well-used river,” said Mickey Kuhns, director of the Bureau of Land and Water Quality of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

The two paper mills and municipal water treatment plants discharge tons of treated wastewater every day into the river, but the amounts have been significantly cut. What’s allowed now isn’t enough to not meet water standards or harm wildlife, according to the Maine DEP.

As the river has become cleaner it’s become a valuable asset. Wildlife, including fish, eagles and ducks are abundant. More walkers enjoy trails along the banks. Boats, canoes and kayaks in the river have become a common sight, as well as people fishing.

Still, the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention recommends eating only between six to 12 fish from the river per year because of dioxin from past mill discharges. That number of fish continues to be among the lowest of any Maine river.

Sometimes, parts of the river may not be swimmable due to municipal sewer overflows during heavy rain, when untreated sewer water gets into the river.  Municipalities along the river have reduced the overflow getting into the river after heavy rains; Lewiston-Auburn by 87 percent since 1987, according to the DEP.

National Geographic gives Verso good report

While not content with the status quo of the Androscoggin River not meeting Class C water standards, Natural Resources Council of Maine scientist Nick Bennett praised both paper mills for making improvements to reduce the amount of organic waste they discharge.

NewPage in Rumford made significant improvements in the last decade, Bennett said, Verso in more recent years.

One was addressing a paper coating loss problem. Verso machines were not working efficiently, which meant paper coating – which is almost like paint – was dumped in the river, occasionally creating visible, big white plumes.

“They fixed that problem,” Bennett said.

In 2011 one of Verso’s customers, National Geographic, wanted to know what impact the mill had on the environment. The magazine conducted an independent environmental study, releasing its results in 2012.

“We think everyone can agree that healthier rivers are in everyone’s best interest,” read the National Geographic report, which confirmed the mill meets or exceeds environmental standards. “Steady and measurable progress has been made in a number of areas in recent years,” reads the report. “That said, it is always possible to do better.”

National Geographic’s report “is an independent, third-party study that showed we are meeting or exceeding all requirements,” said Verso spokesman Bill Cohen. The findings “are consistent with our operating policy,” Cohen said. “We aren’t as bad as some parties make us out to be.”

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