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Potomac River nonprofit sues paper mill owners over alleged pollution

Rockville lawyer Adam Van Grack, far right, joins members of the 2015 national canoe slalom team on the Potomac River, including 2016 Olympian Casey Eichfeld, second from right. Van Grack has served as interim chairman of the board of directors for U.S. Canoe and Kayak, the sports’ national governing body, since last year. ‘It’s something that I can do to make sure our sport focuses on athletes and what’s best for them. That’s important to me,’ he says.  (Courtesy of Potomac Whitewater Racing Center)

Kayakers on the Potomac River. (Courtesy of Potomac Whitewater Racing Center)

A now-closed paper mill being sued by the Maryland Department of the Environment is now also facing a citizen suit from a clean water nonprofit that is seeking to force the mill’s owners to take steps to clean up the Potomac River.

Luke Paper Mill, in Allegany County, manufactured paper products until its closure in June 2019. The mill’s owner, Verso Luke LLC, and parent company, Verso Corp., were sued by MDE in December for allegedly dumping “pulping liquor” into the Potomac. Pulping liquors have a high pH and cause skin and eye burns as well as respiratory irritation. They are corrosive and caustic.

But the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, a nonprofit whose mission is to protect the public’s right to clean river water, believes there are additional pollutants in the river, including coal waste, which creates high levels of mercury and arsenic.

The organization filed a federal suit Tuesday under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which allows citizens to file a civil suit against a person who has contributed to the handling of hazardous waste that may be endangering the environment.

Upper Potomac Riverkeeper Brent Walls said Wednesday that one of the lawsuit’s goals is to work with MDE to expand testing to additional substances beyond just pulping liquor.

“This falls in the realm of highly toxic,” Walls said. “Not only is it just toxic, but it’s bioaccumulative and directly impacts humans.”

The organization’s members are kayakers, anglers and business owners, among others, who use the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers and tributaries.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, seeks an order requiring the defendants to investigate their property and identify all potential sources of contamination as well as an order assessing civil penalties.

“Our goal, obviously, is to negotiate an enforceable federal consent decree setting out a schedule and a plan to thoroughly investigate the site and complete (remediation and cleanup),” said Mary E. Greene, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, which is representing the plaintiffs.

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 the complaint. An MDE inspection found black liquid, which appeared to be “pulping liquor,” seeping from the riverbank into the water.

Walls visited the site in September and took samples that showed levels of arsenic and mercury that exceeded drinking water standards, according to the complaint. The conditions in the river can lead to the formation of methylmercury, which can accumulate in fish and, in turn, in humans who eat the fish.

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network issued a notice of intent to sue in November and then had to wait 90 days to file suit.

Greene said there is evidence that the pollution has been an intermittent problem that began before the first documented discovery of the black liquid in April 2019.

“There are fisherman that use this section of the river, paddlers, they’ve come across this discharge,” she said. “It’s not safe for people to come in contact with it. It’s very caustic.”

Walls said it has been a frustrating process to get MDE and Verso to address the pollution quickly. He said that it took MDE months to make a public announcement about the situation and that the agency has not taken steps to inform downstream communities of the risk of methylmercury.

“Until they are able to excavate and remove contaminated soils and until they are able to pump and treat the water that’s in the ground, until that point we will have continued exposure,” he said.

In a statement, Verso expressed disappointment over the lawsuit, saying that Maryland and West Virginia’s formal enforcement actions are already addressing the issue.

Shawn Hall, a spokesman for Verso, said Wednesday that the company has been working with state regulators in Maryland and West Virginia.

“Unfortunately, this particular lawsuit directs our resources away from our ongoing efforts to address the matter,” Hall said.

 

 


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