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Verso Corp. to pay nearly $250,000 in settlement for 2020 fish kill on Escanaba River in Michigan

DELTA COUNTY, Mich. (From news reports) - The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) announced on Wednesday a settlement with Verso Corp. over National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System violations at the company's Escanaba Mill.

According to information from the Michigan DNR, the permit violations concern a "black liquor" release to the wastewater treatment facility at Verso's paper mill on Aug. 6, 2020, which resulted in fish being killed in the Escanaba River downstream of the mill.

The mill generates black liquor - a high-strength organic pollutant - as a byproduct of its process of turning pulpwood into paper pulp for the mill's craft paper-making process. Typically, black liquor is concentrated and burned as an energy source.

Under the settlement, the Ohio-based company will pay more the $244,451 in civil penalties and natural resource damages and will make spill prevention and containment improvements to its facilities to ensure protection of the Escanaba River and Lake Michigan.

The river empties into Lake Michigan south of the mill.

"It is important that facilities properly handle, contain and control these high-strength pollutants to prevent surface water degradation that can result in fish kills," said Tom Asmus, an EGLE environmental quality analyst with the agency's Marquette district office in Marquette. "These efforts are needed to safeguard our rivers, lakes and streams and the resources and recreational opportunities they provide."

Failure to comply with National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits can result in significant fines. Under the Clean Water Act, the NPDES program controls point-source discharges of pollutants to waters of the United States. Verso operates under the tenets of a permit to discharge treated wastewater to the river.

After anglers reported dead fish in the river, staffers from EGLE's Water Resources Division and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division investigated the site of the fish kill, which covered an approximately 3-mile section of the Escanaba River, extending from Dam No. 2 to the river mouth.

"The investigation included a fish kill assessment, river evaluation and dissolved oxygen monitoring," Asmus said. "After the investigation and discussions with Verso staff, EGLE determined that a catastrophic pipe failure at the mill resulted in a large quantity of the black liquor entering and overwhelming the facility's wastewater treatment plant, which caused the fish kill and pollutant discharge permit limit violations."

When the partially treated wastewater from the plant reached the river, oxygen was drawn from the water, starving the ecosystem of dissolved oxygen. This consequently killed numerous fish representing at least a dozen species, including northern pike, bass, walleye and other sportfish.

The Escanaba River, a popular destination for anglers, paddlers and other outdoor enthusiasts, runs for 52 miles through portions of Marquette and Delta counties.

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