Group pushes for Androscoggin upgrade

AUGUSTA - The cleanliness of the Androscoggin River is again up for debate.

Despite a researched proposal submitted by the Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, an environmental group based in Richmond, the state Department of Environmental Protection declined to recommend upgrading part of the lower Androscoggin in a bill before the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee.

DEP officials said more information is necessary before they would recommend re-classifying a portion of the river, spanning from Worumbo Dam in Lisbon Falls to Merrymeeting Bay, from Class C to Class B.

"How is that river behaving at critical conditions and what's the implications of the upgrade?" asked Andrew Fisk, director of Maine DEP's Bureau of Land and Water Quality. "We think it's only reasonable that we go forward with our eyes completely open."

Fisk said until the DEP completes a water-model test there would be no way of knowing what adjustments would have to be made by those who discharge into the river, such as the cities of Lewiston and Auburn, to maintain the higher classification.

If the river was granted a higher classification, those who discharge into it would be held accountable if it fell below the new, stricter standards, Fisk said.

The cities have already spent millions on improving the water quality of the Androscoggin and are scheduled to spend millions more before reaching their outlined goals.

Jim Bennett, Lewiston city administrator, said Lewiston supports the re-classification with the understanding it would not cost taxpayers additional funds.

"Certainly if (re-classification) were to change our licenses for discharge or require a more aggressive combined sewer overflow schedule, we'd want to have a conversation about that," he said. "In terms of economic development, we recognize that the riverfront is a unique competitive advantage that we have over other places and we want to capitalize on that."

But Ed Friedman, chairman of the Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, said the DEP is applying a double standard to the Androscoggin, and that a culture of anti-Androscoggin exists within the department.

"If you want to upgrade the river, you just are supposed to show that the water quality already stands at the level of the next highest classification," Friedman said, asserting that his group has provided DEP with such data.

Friedman said the DEP's claim that it needs to conduct a water model simulation before re-classification is false.

"The law says absolutely nothing about that being a requirement to upgrade," he said.

Fisk said though DEP may have recommended upgrades in the past without using a water model, there is no double standard.

"It may have happened in the past, but it doesn't mean that we have to do it in all instances," he said.

Fisk said the Androscoggin hasn't been subject to the in-depth study the DEP says is necessary because the department prioritizes studying rivers that have slipped below their classifications, rather than those close to moving up.

Michael Barden, director of environmental affairs for the Maine Pulp and Paper Association, said he was indifferent on the reclassification. Because the portion of the river is significantly downstream of the Verso and NewPage mills, he said they wouldn't be impacted.

Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, and Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, testified before the Natural Resources Committee earlier this week in favor of an amendment that would include upgrading the river.

Rep. Brian Bolduc, D-Auburn, and Sen. Deb Simpson, D-Auburn, serve on the committee. Bolduc said he supports upgrading the river, while Simpson was gathering more information before making a decision. The committee will take the bill up again next week.