Revived river, ever peaceful, still home to industrial mud

October 14, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

WESTERNPORT - On Monday, I floated over a Fortune 500 company's effluent - a brownish-green industrial ooze gushing from underwater vents that looked like they'd been planted in the streambed by fiendish aquatic trolls of Middle Earth.

But this was not Tolkien fiction.

This was 21st-century pulp reality.

And it occurred in broad daylight - as it has for decades, with our government's permission - in the North Branch of the Potomac River, just off the banks of this town. Here, MeadWestvaco, one of the world's largest producers of fancy, polished paper - the kind on which magazines and catalogues are published - "clarifies" and dumps its waste.

I had never floated knowingly over effluent of any kind before.

And while I had taken a raft through parts of the North Branch at least four times in recent years, I had never traveled through MeadWestvaco's infamous "mixing zone."

That's a euphemism for "where we do our business."

It's where, after processing timber into paper, the company is permitted to dump muddy "suspended solids" - aesthetically awful but evidently not toxic - into the river.

Some days, the air stinks.

Other days, it's not so bad.

Monday was one of those days, with only a mild sulfuric scent coming from the Westvaco plant just upriver at Luke.

I was in the raft again with two other guys, both of whom were there to catch fish, if you can believe it.

That's the remarkable thing - that we fully expected to catch fish, even trout, in a great American river a Fortune 500 company continues to use as its private cesspool.

So there we were, floating down the North Branch, enjoying a beautiful October day in that long, crooked stretch of exquisite countryside where Maryland meets West Virginia, where Allegany County meets Mineral County, where old industry meets modern sensibilities about the environment.

"Amazing that they're still allowed to do this," one of my fishing companions said as the raft approached the huge muddy plume in the riffling water.

Where we had started the float trip, upstream of the discharge, the water was clear and cold. But as a series of industrial buildings and a water-treatment plant appeared on our left, MeadWestvaco turned the river to mud. They have a permit to do it.

Our raft floated over a row of what appeared to be streambed vents, maybe six of them - "diffusers," they are called - and that's where and how the complexion of the river changed.

It's a stunning experience to hover for a moment at the place where industrial waste enters nature's bloodstream. You wish you had corks big enough to jam the vents. You wish Maryland had a government with spine enough to make it all stop. You wish someone had forced this century-old company to do it all differently years ago.

I have made this trip a few times now, and I have fished for trout several miles upstream of the water-treatment facility, and for bass several miles downstream.

But I don't come here just for the fishin'.

I come because there's a great story, and it relieves, at least for a day or so, my general depression about the decline of nature.

The North Branch's relatively swift recovery from dead river - poisoned for decades by acidic mine drainage, dioxins and other industrial pollution - to a burgeoning trout fishery remains one of the great environmental recoveries of our time and our region.

We caught trout again the other day, downstream of the Westvaco "mixing zone." Most of these trout were quite healthy, clearly capable of finding food (minnows, crayfish, sculpin) in the waters made murky by Westvaco's waste.

The water is cold enough to sustain a trout population for several miles. The North Branch could be one of the premier trout rivers of the East. There is splendid scenery all around, and I've seen heron, geese, hawks, mink, fox and deer along the way. This could be a paddler's paradise. It could be one of the answers to Allegany's economic problems, a way to create jobs related to recreation and tourism when, or if, the Westvaco plant closes. A clean and flourishing "new" North Branch is what the county needs, not casinos and slots emporiums, not old-school paper plants.

The potential in this river is awesome. And yet, on Columbus Day, there wasn't another soul in the stretch we traveled over eight hours.

MeadWestvaco has made a lot of improvements over time. Thirty years ago, you could see evidence of the company's waste in the North Branch for about 30 miles. That's not so now. The "mixing zone" is considered to be only about a mile long. The brownish-green ooze diffuses into the river as it rolls and bends toward Cumberland.

Still, there's something wrong with this picture. It's 2004, and by now there must be a better way to make paper, or a better way to employ people without pumping waste into a great, ancient river struggling back from the dead.

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