ANDROSCOGGIN VALLEY — A bill before the Maine Legislature to upgrade the classification of a 12-mile section of the Androscoggin River in that state is strongly opposed by the new owners of the Gorham mill as well as the communities of Berlin and Gorham.

Submitted to the Maine Legislature in December, LD 676 calls for upgrading the section of the river from Gulf Island Dam near Lewiston-Auburn, Maine, to Merrymeeting Bay where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

Currently classified as a Class C, the bill seeks to upgrade that section to Class B.

Supporters of the bill said data shows the section already meets Class B standards 99 percent of the time. Upgrading the section would allow the entire river to be classified as Class B and would recognize the remarkable transformation of the river since it was considered one of the country’s most polluted rivers.

“We’ve worked for years to improve the river,” said Peter Rubins, chair of the river working group for Grow L+A, a non-profit dedicated to the sustainable growth of the Lewiston-Auburn area.

If the bill is approved, Rubins noted it would become law in time to mark the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act, a bill proposed by then U.S. Sen. Ed Muskie, who grew up along the Androscoggin River in Rumford, Maine.

But the Maine Department of Environmental Protection testified Monday against the bill as it has against similar legislation in recent years.

In an email, Brian Kavanah, director of the Bureau of Water Quality for the department, explained that during the 2005 relicensing process, dissolved oxygen levels in Gulf Island Pond did not meet Class C levels. The only way the Class C dissolved oxygen standard could be met was with the use of an instream oxygenation system that injects oxygen into the river about 2.5 miles above the Gulf Island dam from June 1 through Sept. 30. While agreeing that that the water flowing over the dam often meets the Class B standard for dissolved oxygen, Kavanah said there are no regulatory controls in place that it meet those higher levels.

If the lower Androscoggin is upgraded to Class B, he said the department will be required to establish regulatory controls in waste discharge licenses, and potentially in future water quality certifications for the Gulf Island Dam, to ensure the water flowing over or through the dam meets the oxygen criteria. Kavanah said it could also potentially require changes to how the oxygenation system is operated.

Price Howard, CEO of White Mountain Paper Co., said requiring more oxygenation in the lower Androscoggin River would cost the Gorham mill since it is a member of the partnership that operates the oxygenation system. The other members are Nine Dragons mill of Rumford, Pixelle Specialty Solutions of Jay, Maine, and Gulf Island Dam owner, Brookfield Renewables.

“This reclassification would result in additional, capital intensive infrastructure additions and additional annual costs relating to increased oxygen injection. The impact to the White Mountain Paper Co. is both financial and potentially limiting expansion opportunities in the long term,” said Price in an email.

Price said all upstream users who discharge into the river would be put into immediate non-compliance and be forced to make costly expenditures to meet the new license. He said reclassifying the river section also prohibits new or increased discharge into the river from both private and municipal dischargers.

After purchasing the Gorham mill at the end of 2020, Behrens Investment Group has announced ambitious plans to modernize the facility and eventually add some new paper machines.

The bill has attracted strong support and equally strong opposition with 15 individuals and organizations submitting written testimony to the legislative committee on Environment and Natural Resources.

Both the city of Berlin and town of Gorham sent letters opposing the bill.

Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier said the bill will subject the local mill to costly expenditures even though modeling by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection shows that eliminating all the discharges in the Androscoggin River would not improve the water quality to Class B.

He said the bill threatens the mill’s expansion plans and thus some much needed jobs. Gorham Town Manager Denise Vallee said the mill has long been one of the region’s largest employers and its continued operation is very important to the town.

Former N.H. Commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development George Bald said the Gorham mill remains crucial to the citizens of Coos County.

“In a struggling economy, we simply cannot afford the change,” said Rumford Town Manager Stacy Carter.

On the other side, the bill has strong support from Trout Unlimited, the Maine Municipal Association, Grow L+A River Working Group, and the communities of Lewiston, Auburn and Brunswick, Maine.

“A clean healthy river attracts people, new businesses, and increases property value and is an essential component of Auburn’s Strategic Plan,” said a resolution passed by the Auburn city council.

Rubins said he is optimistic the legislature will approve the bill and fulfill Muskie’s dream of a clean river.

He said the river has cleaned up gradually and is now used for fishing, kayaking, ice fishing and regattas. Communities along the river had reclaimed it for walking paths and riverside parks.

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