Portland Press Herald
When a state agency admits it got something as important as a pollution discharge permit wrong, it should go back and make it right.
So it is with the Department of Environmental Protection, which no longer supports a permit it issued for an International Paper mill on the Androscoggin River.
The IP permit was one of several actions the agency took last September in an attempt to address persistent water quality problems on the river.
The moves were quickly attacked by all sides, with a total of 14 appeals filed to the DEP’s oversight body, the Board of Environmental Protection. Appellants have objected to a large number of technical and scientific findings and conditions on three discharge permits that involve phosphorus, suspended solids, oxygen levels and more.
Some have also challenged the underlying water quality standard that provides the basis for establishing discharge limits.
Today, the BEP will be asked to decide whether to proceed with the appeals, postpone them while the DEP reopens the IP permit or remand the IP permit for an entirely new permitting process. The BEP could also remand all three disputed permits and the underlying water quality certification back to the DEP for staff to rework.
At a minimum, the board ought to comply with the DEP request to remand the IP permit to the agency. If the board declines, it would set up an absurd scenario where the board would conduct an appeals process for a permit that no one is defending.
A better approach is the one suggested by the BEP staff: to remand the whole shooting match back to the agency for further work. While it will be time-consuming to do so, the principles of good public policy require it.
Because of the way pollution is regulated, changes to one discharge permit may well affect the others. Now that the DEP has discharge data that strongly suggest the IP mill does not need a 10-year grace period to meet standards set in its original permit, the IP permit is almost certain to change.
Another reason to start over is the concern over how politics, and in particular, an alleged quid pro quo deal between a state representative who is an IP manager and former DEP commissioner Dawn Gallagher, may have tainted the process.
The DEP’s new commissioner, David Littell, has pledged to both re-establish public trust in his agency and do right by the river. To best accomplish these important goals, the DEP staff should be allowed to take a fresh look at all of the issues.
The BEP can help bring order to this chaos by giving them a chance to do so.