When Verso Corp., owner of the now defunct Luke paper mill, agreed last week to pay $650,000 to clean up toxic pollutants, which have been seeping into the North Branch of the Potomac River, it was a reminder that the axioms of our youths sometimes get lost somewhere along the way.

A month prior to the mill closure in May 2019, a fisherman noticed black waste leaking into the river and notified the Potomac Riverkeeper Network. State authorities were contacted and an investigation opened.

The investigation found multiple sources for the black discharge and also pollutants from coal ash in the area. The pollutants contained black liquor, which is a byproduct of the paper pulping process.

According to the Potomac Riverkeeper, the gunk was so acidic it could burn a person should they have come into contact with it. The waste reportedly contained arsenic, mercury and lead.

However, the mill closure apparently had nothing to do with the investigation. Verso cited a decline in demand for the coated free-sheet paper it produced, rising costs and foreign imports as the reasons for the closure.

“These repeated discharges degraded water quality and were harmful to fish and wildlife,” said Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh. “Today’s settlement requires Verso to stop its discharges of pulping liquor, develop and implement and remediation plan, and pay significant penalty to the state for its repeated violations.”

Implementing a remediation plan seems to be of note. If this settlement had not come to pass, one shutters at the thought that Verso may have closed and run, leaving the region in a significantly worse position than when the paper mill arrived over 131 years prior.

“This is a healthy shot in the arm for the Potomac River that has endured toxic leaks and a stiff penalty for the polluting company that failed to protect it,” said Department of the Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles. “Our enforcment settlement holds the polluter accountable for the cleanup and begins a new chapter of opportunity for beneficial reuse of teh property to help the citizens and communities in the region.

It reminds of us of a pretty common saying by Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts of America, who said to “try and leave this world a little better than you found it.” Over time, the phrase morphed into “leave the campground cleaner than you found it.”

The particulars of speech aside, the core sentiment stands — heck, our parents probably said it to us dozens of times when we were young: Clean up after yourself.

It’s safe to assume the founder of the Boy Scouts would approve of what’s been ordered to happen in Luke.

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