State, Environmentalists Announce $650K Pollution Settlement With Shuttered Paper Mill

The shuttered Verso Paper Co. mill in Luke in 2019. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

A shuttered paper mill in Western Maryland will pay the state $650,000 to settle a lawsuit over pollution from “black liquor” and contaminants associated with coal ash waste that seeped into the Potomac River.

The lawsuit was filed last May by the Environmental Integrity Project and the Potomac Riverkeeper Network alleging that the Verso Luke Mill was in violation of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The state of Maryland joined the lawsuit a few days later, alleging additional violations of state environmental laws.

“Verso repeatedly discharged toxic pulping liquor into Maryland’s waters,” Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), said in announcing the settlement Thursday. “These repeated discharges degraded water quality and were harmful to fish and wildlife. Today’s settlement requires Verso to stop its discharges of pulping liquor, develop and implement a remediation plan, and pay a significant penalty to the State for its repeated violations.”

Under the terms of the settlement, Verso will be required to investigate the source of the seepages of pulping liquor, a byproduct of paper production, and the extent of the contamination. Verso is also required to permanently stop the discharge and remediate the contaminated site.

In addition to cleaning up the area around a million-gallon storage tank that had at one time held black liquor, Verso is also required to pump and treat contaminated groundwater, close a coal ash waste lagoon, and conduct monthly water quality sampling in the river and groundwater for at least three years following all cleanup measures to make sure that pollution from the site is no longer harming the river, according to the Riverkeepers.

“This long-awaited resolution of an even longer-standing pollution problem was hard won, but, as always in protecting our precious river, was well worth the struggle,” Brent Walls, the Upper Potomac riverkeeper, said in a statement. “Through diligence — and innovation in our use of drone technology to obtain photographic evidence — we, with our dedicated partners at Environmental Integrity Project — have finally achieved the basis to assure the health of the river.”

In April 2019, before the mill’s closure, a fisherman notified the Potomac Riverkeeper that black waste was leaking into the North Branch of the Potomac River, prompting the investigation.

Also as part of the settlement, Verso will reimburse the state’s attorneys’ fees, and pay past and future costs of any state investigation and remediation.

The settlement would allow the future redevelopment of the site while allowing the investigation and remedial work to continue, Frosh’s office said.

“Our enforcement settlement holds the polluter accountable for the cleanup and begins a new chapter of opportunity for beneficial reuse of the property to help the citizens and communities in the region,” Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said in a statement.

The mill, once a major employer in Western Maryland and West Virginia, closed abruptly in May 2019, after more than 130 years in business on the banks of the river in Allegany County. Hundreds of workers lost their jobs.

State and local officials have been scrambling to find a new tenant to occupy the paper mill since it closed. While the mill’s main presses are being sold and shipped off to a paper mill in Turkey, the Maryland Department of Commerce said recently that the state has a letter of intent with an industrial company to occupy part of the space.

[email protected]

Danielle E. Gaines
Danielle Gaines most recently worked for Bethesda Beat covering Montgomery County. Previously, she spent six years at The Frederick News-Post as the paper’s principal government and politics reporter for half that time, covering courts and legal affairs before that. She also reported for the now-defunct The Gazette of Politics and Business in Maryland and previously worked as a county government and education reporter at the Merced Sun-Star in California’s Central Valley.