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Cleaning Up Paper Mill Waste Subsidies and “Black Liquor” Pollution

Verso Luke paper mill Tom Pelton.JPG

Back in 2004, Maryland lawmakers approved a bill meant to encourage wind power, solar panels, and other renewable energy sources as a strategy for fighting climate change.

But because of lobbying from the state’s only paper mill – the Luke mill, in Western Maryland -- lawmakers included an odd little loophole into the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standards. The burning of a tar-like, toxic black waste product from the paper making process – called black liquor – to generate electricity would also receive millions of dollars in state subsidies…, as if it were a clean energy source, even though burning black liquor is a lot like burning coal.

Mike Tidwell is founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

“The fact is that the waste product of paper mill operation was never clean in the first place,” Tidwell said. “And the paper mills were already engaged in this process (of burning black liquor to produce electricity) long before the state had a clean electricity standard. So they were already doing it. They didn’t need a new additional subsidy to keep doing it. And it is, in fact, a polluting process.”

After years of fighting over the issue, the Maryland General Assembly last month voted to strip black liquor from the state’s list of subsidized renewable energy sources.

So what changed? Well, after 131 years of operation, the Luke paper mill – run by company called Verso – suddenly shut its doors in May 2019, putting 675 employees out of work. In a press release, the Verso company blamed the closure on declining consumer demand and competition from foreign sources.

Not even millions of dollars in bogus green subsidies could keep the plant afloat.

So the state cleaned up the black liquor loophole, but only after the plant’s closure.

Now, Maryland is forcing a cleanup of black liquor itself from our environment.

As it turns out, the Luke paper mill stored about a million gallons of the toxic goop in a huge tank beside Upper Potomac River. And over the years, the highly caustic substance slowly leaked out of the tank, contaminating the soil and groundwater and polluting the river itself.

The Upper Potomac Riverkeeper, Brent Walls, investigated and photographed the leakage after a fisherman told him about it in 2019.

“It was solid black licorice-like – a very viscous material. It did not want to mix in the river,” Walls said. “It was heavy – it pooled. It had a high sulfur content, it had arsenic and high levels of mercury.”

Walls filed a federal lawsuit against Verso in March 2020, with the help of the Environmental Integrity Project, demanding a cleanup of the mess. The Maryland Department of the Environment and state Attorney General’s Office saw that legal action and joined in, filing their own federal lawsuit against Verso.

Last week, on April 1, Verso settled the two lawsuits by signing a consent decree that requires the company to pay a $650,000 penalty and perform a comprehensive cleanup to stop the pollution.

Here’s state Attorney General Brian Frosh.

“In addition to the pulping liquor, they’ve got coal ash that’s sitting in a lagoon on the former site,” Frosh said. “And the consent decree requires them to clean that up, before it becomes more of a problem. These coal ash lagoons do pose a threat to waterways, because in a flood or storm situation, they can burst and dump millions of gallons of coal ash into the Potomac River, in this case.”

At the end of all the cleanup, Maryland should have a both a healthier Potomac River and cleaner electricity, because we’ve drained the liquor out of our state subsidies for green power.

The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com.