BALTIMORE (From news reports) -- The State of Maryland, through the Maryland Department of the Environment, on Wednesday issued notice that it intends to bring a lawsuit in federal court against the owner of the Luke Paper Mill for seepages into the North Branch Potomac River that it claims threatens public health and the environment.
A black substance that may include contaminants from caustic and corrosive "pulping liquor," coal ash or other undiscovered sources continues to seep from a riverbank at the paper mill site and into the river, according to the MDE's press released issued Wednesday afternoon.
MDE intends to file suit under federal hazardous waste law to stop the discharge and require an appropriate cleanup.
Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles provided notice of the intent to sue in a letter to officials at Verso Luke LLC and its parent company, Verso Corp. In December, MDE and Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh filed a lawsuit in Allegany County Circuit Court that alleges multiple violations of environmental laws. That suit seeks an order requiring Verso to stop discharging pollution into Maryland waters, post warning signs, remediate any harm caused by the discharges and pay civil penalties.
A federal lawsuit represents the next step in an ongoing investigation and enforcement action, the MDE stated. It would build upon the suit in state court by addressing, in addition to water pollution, a full range of potential impacts including any contamination of the land, under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
"Maryland is taking this necessary step to protect public health and the Potomac River with the hope that it will accelerate the beneficial and productive reuse of the site," Grumbles said. "We cannot allow continued seepage into the river that puts our communities and ecosystems at risk."
"Seepage into the Potomac River from the paper mill jeopardizes the health of fish and wildlife, and the health of citizens," Frosh said. "We intend to file suit in federal court to halt further damage and force the company to take action to repair the damage that has been done."
The paper mill is located in Luke, and includes land across the river in West Virginia. Paper products were manufactured at the location from 1888 until the mill's closure in June.
In April, an angler observed and reported to the state that "pure black waste" was entering the North Branch Potomac River near the mill, the notice of intent letter states. The letter describes MDE's response to that and other reports of seepages, including sampling that showed high pH levels, high sulfur and sodium contents and metals such as mercury and boron.
The discharge appears to include "white," "green" or "black" liquor, or some combination of the "pulping liquors" that are created and sometimes reused as part of the paper-making process. Pulping liquors are considered caustic and corrosive materials that can cause severe skin and eye burns and respiratory problems.
The pulping liquors were stored in tanks on the West Virginia side of the river. In November, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued an order to Verso to empty the tanks on their side of the river. In response, Verso piped material from the tanks in West Virginia to tanks in Maryland, the letter states, adding that MDE's environmental consultant took samples of that material and found a high pH level.
The analysis of the seepage also found metals associated with coal ash. Also, petroleum odor and liquid that was observed show the need to consider wastes from sources other than pulping liquor, the letter states.
Starting in April, MDE directed Verso to determine the source of the seepage and take steps to contain and remove the discharge. Verso submitted a report on field work done by a contractor and, in February, submitted to MDE a "Remedial Investigation & Corrective Action Plan" describing the company's next investigative steps, but the seepage continues.
The letter also states that MDE, through counsel, directed Verso to put up signs in the vicinity of the seepage stating: "Keep Out, No Trespassing, Hazardous Materials Present, Do Not Drink of Have Contact with the Water in the Immediate Area." Verso's counsel advised that the company had put up signs stating, "Restricted Area, Do Not Enter," in the vicinity of the discharge, but would not put up signs with the language directed by MDE.