By Rebekah Metzler, Staff Writer
AUGUSTA – Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection voted unanimously Thursday to approve new permit standards for two mills and a hydroelectric dam on the Androscoggin River.
The citizen board approved a more restrictive wastewater discharge level for the Verso mill in Jay and increased the amount of oxygen to be injected into the river by the mill, as well as the NewPage mill and Florida Power and Light Company’s hydroelectric dam.
“This is a historic moment and we look forward to the future,” Virginia Plummer, chairwoman of the BEP, said during Thursday’s meeting.
David Littell, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, agreed.
“This is a big step forward for the Androscoggin River,” he said.
The board’s decision marks a conclusion of sorts for the set of permits that have been under appeal since September 2005, when they were issued.
Critics on both sides of the issue have indicated they are considering appealing the decision.
“It’s not a dead issue,” said Nick Bennett, spokesman for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “We aren’t sure yet if we are going to appeal this or not.”>/p>
The NRCM, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, believes the permits approved by the BEP are too weak to improve the water quality of the Androscoggin, according to Bennett.
Bill Cohen, spokesman for Verso Paper, said the company was also looking at further legal action.
“We’d like to avoid an appeal but we have to take a step back and evaluate what our approach will be,” Cohen said.
Cohen said the new requirements will cost Verso “millions” of dollars to comply with, but resisted making a specific estimate.
“It’s just hard to predict,” he said.
Littell said he was aware that both environmentalists and mill advocates are disappointed with the permits.
“This has been an extraordinarily polarizing process,” he said. “But our job is to protect the resources of the state, not make people happy. These permits are more restrictive and if they are complied with, the water quality will improve.”>/p>
When asked when the Androscoggin would likely satisfy the water quality standards outlined by its current “C” classification, Littell said it depended on how the river responds to the changes.
“The DEP will continue to monitor the river,” he said. “We can’t give specifics, but if we don’t see improvement, a second (oxygen) bubbler will be added in 2010.”>/p>
The BEP voted on the permits immediately after they denied a motion of objection made by Verso.
The paper company alleged part of the information used to determine the stricter discharge limits was not introduced into the public record and therefore escaped their analysis. A DEP staff member responded with testimony that pointed out where the information was located in the public record, and had been, since 2005.
The newly approved permits are retroactive to 2005, when they were originally issued, and are valid for five years. In 2010, new permits will be needed for the mills and dam to continue operating.