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Paper mill settles in Penobscot River algae incident

BANGOR, Maine (MCT) - Katahdin Paper of Millinocket has agreed to pay a fine of more than $100,000 for wastewater discharges that state officials say triggered a massive algae bloom in the Penobscot River last summer.

Under the terms of a proposed settlement agreement, Katahdin Paper will pay a total of $106,000 to the state, the Penobscot Nation and several pollution prevention and detection projects. Katahdin Paper has also agreed to abide by lower, temporary pollution discharge levels, although company officials said the mill no longer discharges the phosphorus at the root of the algae bloom.

The voluntary settlement agreement must be approved by the Maine Board of Environmental Protection, as well as the state attorney general;s office. The public will also have an opportunity to comment on the proposed settlement.

State officials said the $106,000 fine was based upon the severity of the incident, the bloom's longevity and the size of the affected area. The bloom of blue-green algae was first seen in late July and subsequently spread from Dolby Pond to Winterport before dissipating in September.

At the height of the bloom, the Penobscot Nation advised tribal members to avoid swimming in the river or ingesting its water. While typically harmless, some blooms of blue-green algae can irritate the eyes and skin or cause gastrointestinal problems.

"This is a negotiated settlement, but that [fine] is the number that the department considers to be appropriate," said Andy Fisk, director of the state Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of Land and Water Quality.

Glenn Saucier, a spokesman for Katahdin Paper, said the company agreed to pay the fine and make the other changes to help prevent blooms.

"We're hoping we can put this thing behind us, and we regret that it happened," Saucier said.

Blue-green algae, which are actually a type of common cyanobacteria, occur naturally in lakes, rivers and ponds and are a critical part of the global ecosystem. But with warm temperatures and a supply of phosphorus and nitrogen, the cyanobacteria will reproduce rapidly and form large blooms.

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Such blooms not only make waters aesthetically unappealing; they reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen available to fish and other aquatic organisms, sometimes with lethal consequences. Dissolved oxygen levels dropped below minimum thresholds in the Penobscot during the bloom, according to DEP.

In this case, Katahdin Paper had apparently increased the amount of phosphorus being discharged in its effluent last summer. Phosphoric acid is used by mills to whiten or "brighten" paper.

Since the bloom, the company has substituted other brightening agents for phosphoric acid. While the company is still exploring different compounds, Katahdin Paper has no plan to go back to phosphoric acid, Saucier said.

Fisk said his department is drafting a new permit for the plant that will feature specific pollutant discharge levels.

Staff in the Penobscot Nation's Department of Natural Resources first noticed the bloom during river surveys and paid to have water samples tested for toxicity. Under the proposed settlement, the tribe will receive $8,000 of the $106,000 fine to pay for water quality monitoring.

The state of Maine would receive $21,200 under the settlement, while $25,000 would go toward a household hazardous waste collection program for the Millinocket area. The remaining $51,800 would pay for a mercury-level analyzing system to be housed by the University of Maine but made available to the state, government agencies or other groups.

Katahdin Paper was allowed to select which programs would receive part of the fine.

Copyright (c) 2007, Bangor Daily News, Maine. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.