Lawsuit orders Verso Corp. to stop “black liquid” pollution in Potomac River


The owner of the now-closed Luke Paper Mill is accused of discharging "pulping liquor," polluting the North Branch of the Potomac River

ALLEGANY COUNTY, Md. (WDVM) — Verso Corporation is facing a lawsuit filed by Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, accusing the company of discharging unlawful pollution into the North Branch of the Potomac River. While Verso has taken steps to address the discharge, Frosh claims the river continues to be polluted now, months after it was brought to light.

According to Frosh, the lawsuit filed Monday in the Circuit Court for Allegany County against Verso Luke, LLC and its parent company, Verso Corporation 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.” 

Lawsuit filed Dec. 16, 2019

Frosh’s office said a black liquid, appearing to be a corrosive and caustic substance called “pulping liquor” used in the paper-making process, was found in the North Branch of the Potomac River two months before the Luke paper mill in Luke, Maryland closed down.

Verso was ordered by the Maryland Department of the Environment to find the source of the polluting substance, test the waters, and contain and remove the discharge. Frosh said Verso did install sump pumps and collected some of the discharge as it seeped from the riverbank.

Verso’s Luke Paper Mill closed in June this year, operating for nearly 130 years and impacting over 650 employees with the closure. At the time, Verso explained the closure was a result of declining demand for their paper products.

However, complaints of the same black liquid were still coming in through the summer and fall months, according to Frosh. An inspector from MDE followed up and found the liquid in the riverbed and in the river. Samples of the liquid showed high pH and low dissolved oxygen concentrations, matching the results of the original samples from April.

“Verso has repeatedly discharged highly caustic and dangerous pollutants into Maryland’s waters,” said Frosh.  “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 West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection became involved last month. Verso was ordered to empty the storage tanks above ground on the West Virginia side of the mill on November 4. Due to this direction, Verso “piped material from above-ground storage tanks in West Virginia to tanks in Maryland,” Frosh claims.

Frosh said Verso “has taken some steps to investigate and collect seepage before it enters the river,” but despite the efforts, black liquid continues to seep into the river daily.

This story will be updated.

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