Legal actions aimed at cleaning up the Potomac

LUKE — Legal actions taken this year are designed to rectify two alleged pollution hot spots along the Potomac River in the vicinity of Luke.

They allege Verso Corp., owner of the Luke paper mill, and D&L Coal Co. in neighboring Beryl, West Virginia, have ongoing issues with contaminates leaking into the North Branch of the Potomac River.

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network is among the entities participating in both legal cases. The state of Maryland has taken the lead on the federal lawsuit filed in May against Verso.

Brent Walls, of the Riverkeeper Network, is the Upper Potomac riverkeeper. He said the Verso lawsuit involved a dark caustic liquid that is seeping into the river on the West Virginia side across from the paper mill.

Verso owns the property on the West Virginia side where storage and some processing took place. The Luke mill was shut down in June of last year.

“Black liquor is a byproduct from the pulp and paper industry,” Walls said. “It is a concentration of the tannins and other organic matter that is in the wood pulp.”

Walls said the paper industry discovered it could burn the black liquor, thereby recycling it.

“Someone found out a way you can burn black liquor,” he said. “So sometime back the state of Maryland said they would give them (tax) credits for (reusing it), so they started storing more and more of it.”

However, Walls said the material has leaked from the storage tanks into the ground.

“The black liquor being stored had a cracked secondary containment system and started leaking ... Black liquor itself is very caustic. It is very base and has a high pH which creates a pH imbalance in the river,” he said.

“In addition, the mill has been operating for more than 130 years using coal as a power source for their power plant. In that same area where the black liquor is, Verso has a coal ash pond. What we found in our monitoring, the black liquor leak is heavy metal coal byproducts like mercury, arsenic, boron.

“So unfortunately it is not just black liquor, it is black liquor mixed with coal ash residue, which has these heavy metals,” he said. “When you have a very caustic mixture with high levels of mercury it changes that mercury into methylmercury, making it more susceptible for intake by fish. It will build up in fish and when people eat the fish in this area they will be consuming high levels of mercury. Mercury has been indicated in a lot of cancers and brain damage.”

While the lawsuit against Verso works its way through the courts, the action against D&L Coal has just begun. The Potomac Riverkeeper Network has not filed a lawsuit against D&L Coal, but did send a notice of intent to sue the coal company on July 16.

“D&L was a recent discovery,” said Walls. “In my investigation of the black liquor leak at the Verso mill, in order to get access to the leak, I had to wade the river quite a ways to get to it. In that process, I found what looked to be polluted algae on the banks right at the D&L Coal site. I started to look around and try to figure out where it was coming from. I found out that the D&L location has a discharge point right to the river. When it rains hard, or for a period of time, it will discharge coal residue right into the river.”

The D&L Coal storage site is located a half-mile upstream from the Verso mill. D&L used to supply coal to the mill.

“D&L’s permit says they are required to sample (the river water) whenever it discharges,” said Walls. “A review of their permit history shows they have never recorded any discharges whatsoever coming from the sump pump at the site. That is false because I have witnessed it numerous times over the past year. Therefore each and every time it discharges they are in violation of the permit.

“We haven’t heard back from D&L Coal about it. We just submitted the notice of intent under the Clean Water Act so we are still waiting. There is 60 days from that notice of intent before we can file a lawsuit.”

Walls said both the Verso and D&L Coal Co. leaks do not appear to be large. However, he said ongoing small leaks can do a lot of damage to a river system.

“I can’t put a finger on the volume,” he said. “It’s small amounts, put that small amount can produce a toxic hotspot.” 

Follow staff writer Greg Larry on Twitter @GregLarryCTN.

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