A lit cigar in his mouth and a fly rod near his knee, Harold Harsh rows his blue raft down the North Branch of the Potomac River, past the smokestacks of the Luke paper mill in Maryland and the forlorn towns along the West Virginia bank. The water is so clear he can count the stones on the bottom — until he reaches the plant responsible for treating the paper mill’s waste.

There, the air smells like rotten eggs. The water changes to chocolate brown, bubbling up from five discharge points across the river. For more than a mile, it will remain this way, with trout skirting the cloudy effluent but not darting into it. Casting his fly outside the brown zone, Harsh’s line catches a native brook trout and then several large, silvery rainbows. Even so, the experienced guide said he doesn’t often bring paying customers here.

“You never know what it’s going to look like until you get here,” he said. “Some days it will look like this — and this is not bad — and some days it will be 10 times worse. What we’re seeing here is what they say they can’t clean out because they will go bankrupt trying to keep this water clean.”

The “they” is Verso Corp., owner of the mill, the largest employer in this part of Western Maryland, and the Westernport wastewater treatment plant, which is operated by the Upper Potomac River Commission, a regional agency whose chair is appointed by the governor.

Established in 1960, the UPRC facility treats 20 million gallons a day of industrial paper waste, as well as about a million gallons of combined sewage from the towns of Luke and Westernport in Maryland and Piedmont in West Virginia. The mill pays for nearly all of the plant’s treatment.

The Luke mill, in business for more than 100 years in the tiny mountain town, has a long history of environmental violations for both air emissions and water discharges. It’s changed hands three times in the last decade. Its previous owner filed for bankruptcy in 2011 before selling; the current owner, Verso, filed for bankruptcy in January, but emerged in July.

The workforce, once several thousand people, is down to about 750. But it is still the engine that keeps this western corner of Allegany County humming. Timber trucks rumble up the hillside to the mill several times a day; tractor-trailers depart to deliver paper and supplies.

Environmental activists and anglers have long contended that the state has looked the other way as the mill and the treatment plant polluted the air and water of the Potomac, the drinking water supply for Washington, DC, about 120 miles away. In 2014, the Potomac Riverkeeper sued the Maryland Department of the Environment, contending that the state made a last-minute change in the most recent permit that allowed excessive discharges without any public notice. The riverkeeper is also seeking stricter temperature controls on the mill's direct discharge to the river, contending that the current 100-degree limit is far too warm for coldwater species like trout. The organization is lobbying the state to reclassify the portion of the North Branch at the discharge as a coldwater fishery instead of a warmwater one, which would further protect the fish.

A key issue is a change the state made in the treatment plant’s nitrogen and phosphorus limits. Per the riverkeeper’s request, the state imposed a firm cap on discharges, instead of merely a goal, which Luke Paper itself noted in its legal filing was “unenforceable.” But the new permit limits let the UPRC subtract the nitrogen and phosphorus already in the Potomac’s water from what it’s discharging, on the grounds that those pollutants were already there when the Luke mill withdrew water from the river for its paper-making process. The riverkeeper contends that the state never alerted the public of the change, and that the alterations let the plant discharge far more than should be allowed.

“They made significant changes to the permit after the comment period ended. That seems like the poster child for a case to send back to the agency,” said Phillip Musegaas, attorney for the Potomac Riverkeeper.

Musegaas lost the case in Allegany County Circuit Court; he has appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, which heard arguments earlier this year but has yet to rule.

UPRC officials declined to comment on the permit or the discharge, citing the pending litigation. Officials at the Luke mill did not return calls seeking comment. The door to the administrative office was locked on a recent visit, and no one came to open it after a reporter knocked. The paper mill’s website touts its “responsible environmental stewardship.” In its legal filings, it asserts that “the UPRC discharge is not harming the aquatic habitat of the receiving stream.”

Tim Jackson, a Westernport town commissioner and former mill security guard, said the Luke plant has done a “fabulous job” keeping the Potomac clean. The treatment plant, he said, “will not release anything into the environment that’s harmful because they have to follow strict guidelines. The MDE monitors that river constantly.” He called the riverkeeper’s legal action “bulls___.”

Luke mill officials tout their commitment to renewable fuel as a hallmark of their environmental stewardship. At least 40 percent of the plant’s power comes from burning a paper-making byproduct known as “black liquor,” a watery mixture of woody residue and the chemicals used in processing trees into paper pulp. The waste product, which paper companies have burned for decades, became eligible for more lucrative renewable fuel credits in 2009, when a new state law called for Maryland to get a growing share of its electricity from green sources. Since then, paper mills have earned millions of dollars in government-mandated payments from power companies for using black liquor to run their processes.

In 2011, Luke received $350,000 in renewable energy credits for burning black liquor. Based on prices provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Luke mill made close to $1.3 million last year from black liquor sales.

The mill and its parent company have been the beneficiary of other federal grants and tax credits. In 2013, Verso received $14 million from government grants associated with renewable generation. Verso and other paper mills have profited because a clause in the 2005 highway bill, intended to benefit ethanol and the biodiesel industry, included black liquor. The clause is sometimes called the “black liquor loophole.” In 2009, Verso also received a federal tax credit worth $29.7 million for burning the waste byproduct, according to the Washington Post. The Post reported that amount was only $7 million less than the company’s entire market capitalization.

Environmental groups, particularly the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, are frustrated that black liquor dominates the renewable energy market in Maryland. They fear the practice of burning paper waste has squeezed out more benign energy sources, such as wind and solar. Yet political support for the mill, and its unionized workers, is such that activists have repeatedly failed to remove black liquor from eligibility for Maryland’s renewable credits. Company officials have contended the loss of that income could force the mill’s closure.

The mill doesn’t discharge much directly at its site in Luke. Process water, sanitary wastewater and stormwater from its wood yard and maintenance areas flows to the UPRC for discharge there under a decades-old arrangement.

MDE officials also declined to comment on the UPRC permit because of the litigation. But agency spokesman Jay Apperson said that the UPRC discharge is “generally tea-colored, which is the natural color of tannins from wood or wood pulp.” He added that based on the UPRC’s discharge reports from 1995 to 2014, the color and turbidity of the treatment plant’s discharges “show a long-term trend of continued improvement with each permit renewal.” And before 1985, Apperson noted, the discharged cooling water was permitted to be up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Jackson, the former mill worker, grew up in the area and said he remembers when he and his friends threw rocks in the river and would see eight different shades of mud. Today, he said, the fishing is so good that the town hosts an angler’s rodeo every year.

“The water, in my opinion, is far better than what it’s been here in 100 years,” he said. “And if these people were so worried about it, they wouldn’t be fishing the damn thing.”

Anglers and environmentalists do not dispute the improvement; they just say the mill and the plant could do much better. Bass and trout need to see their prey to survive, they said, and in cloudy water, that’s not possible. And, they contend that recreational fishing is a valuable industry just as deserving of protection as is the mill. Maryland has invested decades and millions of dollars in cleaning up this part of the Potomac, long considered a dead river because of acid mine drainage and other industrial pollution.

A recent study prepared for the state showed the fishing in the North Branch of the Potomac is worth $3 million annually. When Harsh started guiding 24 years ago, he was the only one; now, there are five guiding businesses and five whitewater outfitters.

But Harsh and the other guides worry that allowing further discharges of warm water imperils the fish that the state has worked hard to restore. In early fall, Upper Potomac Riverkeeper Brent Walls measured the Potomac before the discharge at 62 degrees, which is ideal for trout. The discharge was at 90 degrees — well above what’s good for the fish, he said, even if it’s well within the parameters of the plant’s permit.

“The state of Maryland is basically giving the mill a pass on the pollution control that this river demands. And that’s a deliberate decision,” said Ken Pavol, a fishing guide who managed the Western Maryland fisheries for the state’s Department of Natural Resources until his retirement in 2005.

Pavol remembers the 1970s, when he moved to Western Maryland, and the discharge from the UPRC was thick and dark. Trout couldn’t survive; neither could the caddisflies and mayflies that were a staple of their diet. By 1990, public outcry compelled the state, the mill and the treatment plant to invest millions of dollars in upgrades. The volume of discharge and the total suspended solids decreased. Because of substantial investments in remediating acid mine drainage, the water in the river changed from a vinegar-like constituency where little could live to mostly excellent fish habitat. After a few years, conditions were good enough for Pavol to stock fingerling trout. They survived, along with the wild populations that swam to this part of the North Branch.

While the recent consultant report prepared for the state touted the progress of the North Branch, it noted that conditions still did not support a “full recovery” of macroinvertebrates — though their diversity had improved substantially. Department of Natural Resources monitoring data at Westernport show continued downward trends for nitrogen and phosphorus, though a 2014 stream health map displayed on the DNR’s website shows the river’s condition going from excellent to fair below Luke and again below Westernport, where the UPRC plant discharges.

Despite the river’s improvements, the mill and the UPRC have continued to run afoul of environmental regulations. In 2000, the state fined the plant and the mill $450,000 for discharging potentially unhealthful levels of fecal coliform into the Potomac. The fine came after the American Canoe Association threatened legal action. At the time, the plant was operating under a permit that had expired five years earlier. That same year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed a lawsuit against the mill for sulfur emissions that violated the Clean Air Act. That case was resolved this year when a federal judge fined the previous mill owners $1.6 million.

In 2011, an MDE inspector observed that fill materials from settlement ponds at the wood yard were being dumped outside the limits of an approved rubble fill site without agency approval. A week later, the inspector saw that 300 gallons of paper mill wastewater had overflowed from a manhole just south of the mill’s pump/clarifier facility. Some ended up in the Potomac, according to a 2012 report from the Maryland attorney general on the violation. The state entered into a settlement with the mill, but ultimately did not collect any money because the company filed for bankruptcy.

In 2014, a year after the comment period on the plant’s most recent discharge permit had ended and ownership changed, Pavol reported to the state that the effluent was dark and cloudy. It reminded him, he said in a court filing, of “the bad old days pre-1990.”

In 2015, Verso acknowledged that operator error led to a 9,500-gallon spill of latex chemicals. In April, the mill’s parent company agreed to pay a $10,000 fine for violations connected to the spill.

The mill reported two more spills this year, one in August that sent hundreds of pounds of black liquor mixture into the sewers over a 12-hour period, and a smaller one in October of wood chips and sawdust. Neither violated the permit.

“They’re basically using the river as a dilution,” Walls said. “They’re diluting their waste so that it’s legal to discharge it.”

Apperson said that, for the paper mill’s next discharge permit, the department is considering revisiting temperature studies to “reflect current operations and background conditions.” He said the new permit is in draft stages and should be available for public comment at the end of 2016. It’s not certain whether that will happen before or after the Court of Special Appeals rules.

As originally posted, the story misidentified which facility's permit that state regulators may review for the temperature of the discharge.  It is the Luke mill's permit.  The Bay Journal regrets the error.