A faulty floor drain at the Old Town, Maine pulping facility led to the discharge of over 1,000 gallons of 50% sodium hydroxide solution into the Penobscot river. | Satur/Shutterstock

A U.S. subsidiary of Nine Dragons has been ordered to pay just over $100,000 after its Maine paper mill leaked over 31,000 gallons of pulping chemicals into a river in 2020 and 2022.

According to a pending agreement between ND Paper and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the global paper company will pay Old Town, Maine $101,400 to help the city finish a $450,000 environmental project to replace a culvert and restore a stream in order to improve the local fish habitat. 

The company has already made a number of repairs to its mill and updated processes to help prevent future spills. 

The Old Town mill was purchased by Chinese paper giant Nine Dragons in 2018, and the company invested heavily to allow the mill to use recycled fiber as feedstock. Earlier this year, the company noted it was taking “extended downtime” at the mill due to market conditions.

Two spills

According to city documents and local reporting, on the evening of Oct. 7, 2020, ND Paper’s wastewater treatment plant operator observed elevated pH levels and investigated, finding several places along the Penobscot riverbank where caustic liquid was leaking from the recovery boiler area’s sewer system.

The 50% sodium hydroxide solution leaked due to open valves to a failed floor drain, with discharges occurring daily between Sept. 29, 2020, and Oct. 7, 2020, and intermittently on 56 days throughout 2021, according to the agreement. Within a few hours of discovering the leak, ND paper shut down the mill and notified the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

The company replaced a failed section of underground sewer piping, added some protections to cordon off affected areas of the river and restarted operations at the mill later that month, on Oct. 27, but workers discovered another spill of the same solution on June 29, 2022. That spill was also related to the failed floor drain and discharged about 1,076 gallons over 30 days.

ND Paper then replaced about 400 feet of stainless steel piping and repaired the failed floor drains, according to the agreement.

The company has since instituted more regular monitoring and installed shut-off valves in the caustic line and alarms to detect caustic liquid flows. It also investigated and sealed older, unused piping that the liquid was traveling through and changed its processes to include more inspections and repairs. 

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