Maryland sues Verso over Potomac River pollution


Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh last month filed a lawsuit 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 seeks 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 appropriate civil penalties for past and ongoing violations of Maryland’s environmental laws.

Verso owns the Luke paper mill, located in Luke, Maryland, and Beryl, West Virginia, with facilities spanning the North Branch of the Potomac River.

Paper products were manufactured at the mill until it closed in June 2019.

According to the lawsuit, a fisherman in April 2019 observed and reported that “pure black waste” was entering the North Branch of the Potomac River near the Luke paper mill. An inspection of the site found black liquid seeping from the southern riverbank into the river. The black liquid appeared to be “pulping liquor,” a corrosive and caustic substance created, and also sometimes re-used, during the paper-making process.

Samples of the black liquid revealed elevated pH and low dissolved oxygen concentrations, as well as high sulfur and sodium content.

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 follow up report with investigation findings. In an effort to contain the discharge, Verso installed sump pumps and collected some of the black liquid as it seeped from the riverbank. MDE received additional complaints of black discharge into the river during the summer and fall of 2019.

During follow up inspections, an MDE inspector again observed black discharge along the riverbed and in the river. Samples taken revealed high pH and low dissolved oxygen. On November 4, 2019, 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,” Frosh said. “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.”

The suit says Verso has taken some steps to investigate and collect seepage before it enters the river. However, these efforts have not prevented pollution from entering the North Branch of the Potomac River daily from at least April 6, 2019 to present,, the suit says.

In April 2019, Verso announced that it would permanently close the mill in response to the continuing decline in customer demand for the grades of coated freesheet paper produced at the mill, along with rising input costs, a significant influx of imports and rising compliance costs and infrastructure challenges associated with recent environmental regulation changes. The closure reduced Verso’s coated freesheet production capacity by about 450,000 tons, reducing total annual paper production capacity to about 2.7 million tons.

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