Potomac Riverkeeper Network files intent to sue owners of defunct Luke Paper Mill

News Release, Potomac Riverkeeper Network

Discharges of Toxic “Black Liquor” into the Upper Potomac River from Verso Corporation’s Luke Paper Mill Violate Hazardous Waste Law

Washington, D.C. – November 19– Potomac Riverkeeper Network (PRKN) today filed a Notice of Intent to Sue (NOI) Verso Corporation, owner of the now-closed Luke, Maryland paper mill, for the ongoing unlawful discharges of a toxic waste called “black liquor” into the North Branch of the Upper Potomac River.

Black liquor is a byproduct of paper production and it is seeping into the river near a railroad piling, apparently from a leak or spill at the industrial facility. The NOI alleges violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the federal law governing storage and disposal of hazardous and solid waste.

Upper Potomac Riverkeeper Brent Walls, whose investigation uncovered the discharge, said, “Sampling of the discharged material by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and PRKN suggest the presence of ‘black liquor,’ possibly mixed with coal ash.”  Black liquor, a caustic mix of chemicals and wood waste from the paper-making process at the plant, in addition to having a high pH, contains hazardous constituents at concentrations that are harmful to aquatic life and humans. Coal ash contains a range of harmful constituents, including arsenic, mercury and boron, all of which were found in PRKN’s sampling.

PRKN is represented in this matter by Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit environmental organization, founded in 2002, that advocates for more effective enforcement of environmental laws.  “The idea that ‘black liquor’ possibly mixed with other waste from the site is pouring directly into the river, and may have been doing so for years, is completely unacceptable,” said Mary Greene, Deputy Director of the Environmental Integrity Project.  “People fish, canoe and kayak in the area, and this uncontrolled waste stream contains high concentrations of arsenic, mercury, and other harmful contaminants.  To our knowledge, there aren’t even any warning signs posted. Thank goodness Congress gave citizens the legal tools to force the cleanup of these kinds of dangerous releases.”

Walls concluded, “RCRA permits PRKN to commence a civil suit against Verso for any solid waste that may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment. In this case, this endangerment is caused by the discharge of solid and/or hazardous waste from the paper mill to the North Branch of the Potomac River which has been ongoing since at least April 2019.  Verso has both a legal and a moral obligation to clean up this mess, which threatens public health and aquatic life in the Potomac.”

Under RCRA, Verso now has 90 days to respond to PRKN’s allegations. If the polluted discharge continues and is not remediated by the end of the 90-day notice period, PRKN will file suit in federal court to enforce the law.

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