Paper mills and a power company could appeal the cleanup proposal for part of the river near Lewiston.
A state environmental panel is expected to rule next month that the Androscoggin River, Maine’s dirtiest major waterway and an inspiration for the U.S. Clean Water Act, must meet minimal clean water standards by the summer of 2010.
The Maine Board of Environmental Protection tentatively endorsed the cleanup plan last week. It would tighten restrictions on industrial discharges and require the owners of two paper mills and a hydroelectric dam to pump more oxygen into the most polluted section of the river, near Lewiston and Auburn.
“Finally, the state is listening to the communities downstream and hearing their desire for a cleaner river,” said Neil Ward, a leader of the Androscoggin River Alliance in Lewiston.
If approved as expected on Feb. 7, the plan could settle several years of legal appeals. It also could lead to a whole new round of appeals, this time to Superior Court.
Representatives of a paper mill and the dam owner said Monday that they are considering their options. A conservation group also criticized the pending limits as still being too weak.
The Androscoggin’s industrial pollution helped inspire the late U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie to champion the federal Clean Water Act in 1972. There are still sections of the river — especially above the Gulf Island Pond dam between Lewiston and Auburn — that do not meet the law’s criteria that rivers be swimmable and fishable.
A long-running battle about the pace of the river’s cleanup made headlines in 2005 and 2006.
Environmental Protection Commissioner Dawn Gallagher resigned after meetings between her staff and paper mill officials led to a 10-year cleanup plan for the river — as well as a flood of appeals and a probe by the state Attorney General’s Office.
The controversy also led the state ethics commission to review state Rep. Tom Saviello, an independent from Wilton who works for one of the mills and served on a DEP oversight committee.
The revised plan that’s now headed for BEP approval would set a five-year cleanup schedule and make it retroactive to 2005.
The Androscoggin Pulp and Paper Mill in Jay and the Rumford Pulp and Paper Mill would face tighter limits on discharges of phosphorous, among other compounds.
The mills and FPL Energy, owner of the dam at Gulf Island Pond, would have to increase the rate at which they inject oxygen into the river to make it livable for native fish — a requirement that could cost tens of millions of dollars.
Steve Hinchman, a lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation in Brunswick, called the deadline a significant victory. “This is the last of Maine’s big rivers to get the protection it deserves,” he said.
But some conservationists say the plan focuses too much on injecting oxygen and not enough on stopping pollution.
“I view this as really a missed opportunity to clean up the river,” said Nick Bennett of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
The mills generally meet the new discharge limits already, Bennett said, so the amount of phosphorous pollution wouldn’t be reduced.
Bill Cohen, a spokesman for Verso Paper’s Androscoggin mill in Jay, said discharges vary over time and must be kept well below the limits so there are no periodic violations. “These are the strictest limits anywhere in the country,” he said.
Cohen said the company is analyzing the potential effects of the plan before deciding whether to appeal.
Representatives for Verso Paper and FPL Energy have objected to the state’s scientific basis for the rules. A computer model used to determine oxygen needs in the river has major flaws, and the DEP’s own expert confirmed the problems, they said.
“If the mill discharges are reduced and the corrections are made in the model, there may not be a need for more oxygen in the river,” said Jeff Thaler, an attorney for FPL Energy.
Thaler also said that FPL is being held entirely accountable for pollution from agricultural runoff, residential waste treatment and other sources of pollution that accumulates above the dam.
“We believe that that’s unlawful,” he said.