Westvaco, state OK deal to cut pollution

Aid to Potomac River insufficient, group says

March 24, 2001|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

State officials announced yesterday that they have reached agreement with Westvaco Corp. to "significantly" reduce pollution of the upper Potomac River by curtailing chocolate-colored wastes from the company's pulp and paper mill in Western Maryland.

The deal immediately came under fire from the American Canoe Association, a coalition of canoe and kayak clubs, which contended that the cleanup required of the Luke mill is much too little to restore the impaired fish populations and recreational use of the North Branch of the Potomac.

Under terms of a long-delayed permit from the Maryland Department of the Environment, the New York-based paper company will be forced within two years to halve the discoloring wastes being discharged from its Allegany County mill.

The permit also decreases the allowable amount of particles in the wastewater, which contribute to turning the upper Potomac murky brown for as much as 20 miles downriver.

The state discharge permit, nearly six years overdue, came after months of negotiations with Westvaco, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and two environmental groups. All but one of the parties expressed satisfaction with the outcome.

"It is important that we move forward with the permit at this time so that improvements to the water quality in the North Branch can be realized," Jane T. Nishida, state environment secretary, said in a prepared statement.

The permit sets pollution limits for the next five years on a wastewater treatment plant in Westernport operated by the Upper Potomac River Commission. That plant also processes sewage from three small communities around the mill, but more than 90 percent of its waste is from Westvaco.

State officials note that the permit calls for studies over the next three years, which could lead to even more stringent limits being imposed on Westvaco's discharge.

Westvaco plans to spend $5.6 million to reduce the color of its waste discharge by 50 percent, according to mill spokeswoman Patsy Koontz. "Color is an aesthetic issue, not a health issue," she said, noting discharge now is less murky than a decade ago.

Biological studies have shown that populations of fish and their habitat downriver from the mill are recovering, but continue to suffer.

One environmental group, Safe Waterways in Maryland, said the agreement represents progress.

"While the river won't be as clear as it is above the discharge, with the new permit, the river should be able to support life once again in the near future," said Duncan Smith, a Baltimore broadcasting executive who founded the group.

However, the American Canoe Association vowed to appeal.

"The practical effect [of the permit] is there will be no change in the amount of many of the pollutants being discharged, and cosmetic changes only to others," said David Bookbinder, a lawyer for the Virginia-based group, which includes paddling clubs in Maryland.

Bookbinder contended that state and federal regulators balked at imposing more stringent limits because of pressure from the company and from Western Maryland politicians concerned about losing the mill's 1,500 jobs.

The canoe association is suing Westvaco in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, seeking additional penalties from the company over high levels of fecal coliform bacteria discharged for years by the plant.

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