CHARLESTON, W.Va. (From news reports) -- Del. Gary Howell (R-Mineral) on Thursday encouraged the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and Gov. Jim Justice's office work with counterparts in Maryland to ensure the site of Verso Corp.'s Luke paper mill can be cleaned up and reopened by a potential new investor.
The request comes after the Maryland Department of the Environment announced Wednesday that it intends to sue Verso Corp. in federal court over alleged seepages from the site into the North Branch Potomac River.
Verso owns the mill, located in Luke, Maryland, and Beryl, with facilities spanning the Potomac River at the site. Paper products were manufactured there until Verso announced on April 30 the mill would close. It was subsequently shut down May 30, displacing hundreds of workers.
"My top priority since last year has been trying to find a way to get this site reopened and the nearly 700 people who lost their jobs back to work," said Howell, who chairs the House Committee on Government Organization.
According to MDE, 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.
"If Verso has caused environmental damage, they need to fix it, and I'm hopeful our state regulators can work with their counterparts in Maryland to ensure this is done as quickly as possible," Howell said.
Howell, who has been critical of Maryland regulators for their role in pushing the company to the point of shutting down the plant, said he would like West Virginia officials to work with Maryland leaders to ensure there's no overreach in the pending federal court case.
"People are understandably angry with this company, and I want Verso to be required to come in and quickly clean up and fix any damage it has caused," he said. "But what I want regulators to be careful of is doing something so aggressive that the company decides it would rather declare bankruptcy than deal with high punitive penalties from potential litigation.
"To be clear: I want Verso to foot the entire bill for fixing this, and that taxpayers are not forced to clean up their mess," he said. "But overall, I would like this matter to be dealt with swiftly to ensure this property remains viable to future investment. Bringing back these jobs is critical, and I don't want to see this site continue to sit idle as the company and state of Maryland engage in a lengthy court battle."