State Sues Owner of Shuttered Paper Mill Over River Pollution

    The Maryland Attorney General’s office and the Department of the Environment filed a lawsuit Monday against the owner of a shuttered paper mill in Western Maryland, alleging that the plant has been discharging pollution into state waters dating back to at least April.

    The suit was filed in the Circuit Court for Allegany County against Verso Luke, LLC and its parent company, Verso Corporation, for unlawful pollution discharges into the North Branch of the Potomac River. The suit asks a judge to issue an order requiring Verso to stop discharging pollution into Maryland waters, post signs warning of the risks of exposure to the discharge, remediate any harm caused by the unlawful discharges, and pay civil penalties for violations of Maryland’s environmental laws.

    Specifically, the suit accuses Verso of allowing black liquor, a substance that is a byproduct of paper production — and is used as a source of energy at the plants and elsewhere — to seep into the river.

    Verso owns the shuttered paper mill, located in Luke, Md., which closed in June after 131 years in operation, with related facilities across the river in Beryl, W.Va. In April, a fisherman reported that “pure black waste” was entering the river near the paper mill, the state’s complaint says.

    An inspection of the site found black liquid seeping from the southern riverbank into the river. The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) directed Verso to determine the source of the unauthorized discharge, to sample and test the waters, to take steps to contain and remove the discharge, and to submit a followup report after the investigation.

    In an effort to contain the discharge, the state said, Verso installed sump pumps and collected some of the black liquid as it seeped from the riverbank. But MDE received additional complaints of black discharge into the river during the summer and fall of 2019. Last month, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection ordered Verso to empty the above-ground storage tanks on the West Virginia side of the mill. In response, Verso piped material from above-ground storage tanks in West Virginia to tanks in Maryland.

    “Verso has repeatedly discharged highly caustic and dangerous pollutants into Maryland’s waters,” said Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) in a statement. “After numerous attempts to get Verso to comply with Maryland’s environmental laws, the company continues to allow pulping liquor to contaminate the river, harming fish and wildlife, in violation of Maryland’s laws.”

    Verso’s press office did not respond to an email Monday seeking comment. A company spokeswoman told The Baltimore Sun that Verso is working “cooperatively and transparently with both Maryland and West Virginia regulatory agencies to address concerns at the facility.”

    Meanwhile, the future of the hulking paper mill, which employed about 675 people at the time it closed, remains unclear. The Maryland Commerce Department hired a consultant to work with the company to find a new tenant, but there have been no takers so far.

    “The state continues to work with any investor that has an interest in purchasing the mill,” a Commerce Department spokesman, Daniel Leaderman, said in an email Monday.

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    Josh Kurtz
    Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.