LUKE - Bounded by lush forest and towering cliffs, the North Branch of the Potomac River offers some of Western Maryland's most breathtaking scenery as it winds through the Allegheny Mountains. Heron, osprey and even the occasional eagle prowl the skies looking for fish in the water.
But the view is spoiled here for many anglers and outdoors enthusiasts by sour odors and industrial waste from Westvaco Corp.'s pulp and paper mill, which turns the river the color of chocolate milk for miles downstream.
"It's not a place I choose to go back to," says Tom McCloud, an avid canoeist from Frederick. "Up above there, the water is clear and doesn't smell," he says, but downriver "it's just ugly and unpleasant."
Under pressure from canoeists and environmentalists, state and federal regulators are mulling potentially costly new pollution limits for the 112-year-old paper mill and its associated wastewater treatment plant.
The prospect worries many residents of the three towns neighboring the mill who have benefited from the well-paying jobs, tax revenues and charitable donations provided by the New York-based corporation that got its start here.
"Westvaco is our bread and butter," says Luke Mayor Joseph W. LaRue, who notes that his tiny town of 84 residents couldn't survive without the taxes paid by the mill. "You can put too much pressure on a person and they'll just say the hell with it."
Westvaco officials say the company has no plans to leave the area or reduce its job force of 1,500.
The company has spent $44 million since 1987 to clean up the mill's pulp waste going into the river, says Patsy Koontz, public relations manager for the Luke facility. Though the discharge now might look bad, company officials contend that it does not significantly harm the Potomac.
"The color really is an aesthetic issue, not a health issue," Koontz says.
Environmentalists and state biologists disagree, pointing to annual stream surveys showing that populations of fish and the aquatic bugs they feed on are recovering, but still depressed in the murky stretch downstream from the mill.
The American Canoe Association, a coalition of canoe and kayak clubs, threatens to sue if the Maryland Department of the Environment does not impose limits on the mill stringent enough to clear up the water. State regulations dictate that no discharge should discolor the water, the group contends.
Westvaco is operating on a 10-year-old wastewater permit that expired five years ago. It is one of about 30 large industries and municipal sewage treatment plants - nearly one in three of all such facilities in Maryland - that have outdated permits because regulators can't decide what new pollution limits to impose.
State officials say that in Westvaco's case, they are waiting for guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on how much the Luke mill should be required to reduce the color of its wastewater.
Dane Bauer, deputy state water management director, said his agency hopes to propose a new permit by the end of the year.
The chocolate-colored wastewater comes from a treatment plant in nearby Westernport operated by the Upper Potomac River Commission. The plant treats sewage from the small towns of Luke, Westernport and Piedmont, W.Va., but more than 90 percent of its waste comes from Westvaco. The company pays 97 percent of the treatment plant's operating costs.
This year, with the canoe association again threatening to sue, the state fined Westvaco and the treatment plant $450,000 for discharging potentially unhealthful levels of fecal coliform bacteria into the river.
The mill has since corrected the problem, says spokeswoman Koontz, and plans to spend $2.7 million over the next few years to guarantee it will not recur.
The corporation also is willing to spend $5.7 million to reduce - but not eliminate - the discoloring wastes from its mill that are clouding the river, she says.
George Schoemaker, the mill's environmental manager, says the river is rebounding because of pollution reductions achieved during the past decade. He notes that an environmental consultant retained by the company found 15 fish species in the North Branch this year about a mile below the wastewater discharge.
The river is far healthier today than it was 20 or 30 years ago, scientists agree. The North Branch was once virtually lifeless because of highly acidic water draining out of coal mines and because of industrial wastes from factories like the Luke mill. Mine drainage has been partly neutralized, and most other industries have shut down.
"They're on the right track," Ken Pavol, regional fisheries manager for the Department of Natural Resources, says of Westvaco's actions over the past decade. But, he adds, "more progress would bring more fish." The wood-pulp particles, tannins and other substances in the waste discharge can block out light needed by aquatic creatures to see their prey.