Maryland environmental regulators have filed a federal lawsuit against the owner of the closed Luke paper mill in Allegany County, accusing it of continuing to pollute the North Branch of the Potomac River with toxic contaminants.

The complaint, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, alleges that a toxic black substance that appears to include paper “pulping liquor” and possibly coal ash is leaking into the river from the facility owned by Verso Corp.

Luke Mill North Branch Potomac Outfall with riverkeeper 2

Upper Potomac Riverkeeper Brent Walls stands in the North Branch of the Potomac River at the wastewater outfall that served the Luke, MD, paper mill owned by Verso Corporation.

In the lawsuit, the state Department of the Environment seeks to intervene in a federal case making much the same allegations that was filed in March by the Potomac Riverkeeper Network. Brent Walls, the Upper Potomac Riverkeeper, said the nonprofit organization welcomed the state’s involvement.

The state had previously sued Verso in December in Allegany County Circuit Court, alleging multiple environmental violations. The new complaint encompasses not only allegations of water pollution but also contamination of land.

The lawsuits are the outgrowth of an investigation that began in April 2019 when an angler reported seeing “pure black waste” going into the North Branch by the mill. State inspectors who sampled liquid seeping out from the riverbank found that it was caustic enough to burn skin and contained toxic mercury, lead, antimony and arsenic.

The mill closed in June 2019, ending 131 years of operation and eliminating 675 jobs. The company took steps to collect the black liquid and submitted a plan for cleaning it up. But the state lawsuit asks the court to order a full remediation and impose civil penalties on the company.

A Verso spokesperson said the Ohio-based company has been “working in cooperation” with regulators from Maryland and West Virginia and has an approved plan to “take immediate action” to remedy the issues raised by the lawsuits.

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or

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