Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection has made a midcourse correction on its treatment of the Androscoggin River, and it’s good news.
At a meeting Wednesday to set a schedule for appeals concerning discharge permits for the paper mills in Jay and Rumford, DEP Deputy Commissioner David Littell made public that the permit for International Paper would be reconsidered.
Essentially, new data obtained about IP’s release of phosphorous in September suggests that the mill is able to meet discharge standards considerably more stringent than currently required.
The commitment to re-examine the permit, including public participation in the process, is a welcome turnaround.
After a heated legislative session in which the water quality in the Androscoggin became heavily politicized, the DEP had agreed to a compliance schedule that was too lenient. The agency brokered side deals that were conducted without appropriate public oversight and participation, and the mills negotiated pollution limits that would keep the Androscoggin a “working river,” code for second class. Public pressure earlier this month led DEP to abandon the side agreements.
Fourteen appeals were filed opposing the discharge deal. It appears those appeals will be put on hold until IP’s permit can be reopened and a pending case before the Supreme Court is settled.
Somewhat ironically, it was the new, flawed permit, which was issued in September, that gave DEP the information it needed to reconsider the case. Before the permits went into effect, IP was not required to disclose phosphorous discharge information. The new permit required the disclosure, which showed IP was already well within the discharge limit proposed for 2015.
During the debate, IP argued tougher limits could threaten the company’s viability and cost jobs. But the new data show it can already meet the standards and its real motivation was to create room underneath for additional discharge, just in case it were needed.
That IP is already within the 2015 standards is good news that the company should be proud of. It’s also a good reason for the DEP to take another look at what sort of permit would be in the best interest of the Androscoggin. DEP’s job is to set appropriate permit limits, not create a discharge buffer for polluters.
According to Littell, the DEP hasn’t prejudged what it will find when it reopens IP’s permit process or what a new permit might look like. Science and a healthy Androscoggin will be the guide, he said.
IP has powerful advocates in the State House. When the Legislature returns in January, we would expect intense pressure for lawmakers to step into the process. We hope they can resist the temptation and allow a newly engaged DEP to do its job.