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MDE alleges closed paper mill is polluting Potomac River

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh xxxxxx (File photo)

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh. (File photo)

A now-closed paper mill in Western Maryland is accused of polluting the North Branch of the Potomac River by improperly dumping “pulping liquor,” which sparked complaints over the summer.

Luke Paper Mill, in Allegany County, manufactured paper products until its closure in June. The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) filed suit Monday against Verso Luke LLC, which owned the mill, and its parent company, Verso Corp., for alleged violations of state laws.

The complaint seeks an injunction prohibiting the defendants from discharging pollutants, an order requiring remedial measures and civil penalties.

The alleged pollution was first identified in April, when a fisherman reported “pure black waste” entering the North Branch of the Potomac River near the mill, according to a news release from the Maryland Office of the Attorney General. An inspection found black liquid, which appeared to be “pulping liquor,” seeping from the riverbank into the water.

Pulping liquors have a high pH and cause skin and eye burns as well as respiratory irritation, according to the complaint. They are corrosive and caustic.

MDE directed Verso to determine the source of the liquid, conduct testing and take remedial steps, according to the release. Additional complaints were received during the summer and fall and an MDE inspector observed the black discharge during a follow-up inspection.

Verso installed sump pumps and collected some of the black liquid in an attempt to contain the discharge, but their efforts have not prevented the pollution from entering the river, according to the release.

MDE also instructed Verso to put signs in the area of the seepage warning of hazardous materials and cautioning against drinking or having contact with water in the area, according to the complaint. The defendants put up signs indicating the area was restricted but refused to use MDE’s language about hazardous materials.

“Verso has repeatedly discharged highly caustic and dangerous pollutants into Maryland’s waters,” Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said in a statement. “After numerous attempts to get Verso to comply with Maryland’s environmental laws, the company continues to allow pulping liquor to contaminate the river, harming fish and wildlife, in violation of Maryland’s laws.”

In early November, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued an order to Verso to empty its above-ground storage tanks on the West Virginia side of the mill; the company piped the material into tanks in Maryland.

The alleged contamination is ongoing, according to the lawsuit. A spokesperson for Verso was not immediately available for comment Monday.

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