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Newton Falls mill shutdown leaves hamlet in dire need of sewer service

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NEWTON FALLS — A Canadian company that prides itself on its environmental responsibility could leave behind a nasty problem when it says farewell to the hamlet where it once ran Newton Falls Fine Paper.

Scotia Investments, Nova Scotia, the parent company of Newton Falls Fine Paper, plans to mothball on Oct. 31 the plant that has been an off-and-on operation since 1897. The mill stopped making paper in 2010, and the company gave up attempts to market it. It sold off the equipment and is ready to cease all operations.

Left in the lurch are 14 households and a vacant Catholic church that are tied to the mill’s sewer treatment system. Once the plant turns off the lights for good, their sewage will have nowhere to go.

“It is an emergency. Something has to be done,” said St. Lawrence County interim Public Health Director Lorraine B. Kourofsky. “People can’t be without a sewer system. They can’t be.”

The town of Clifton had thought it had more time before the mill shut down its system. It had intended to break ground Monday on a temporary fix that could keep wastewater flowing until a hamlet-wide system is built next year, but questions about what costs are reimbursable through grants have put that on hold.

“It’s all up in the air at the moment. It’s a very volatile situation,” Clifton Supervisor Charles R. Hooven said. “We’re hoping someone comes up with emergency funding.”

Scotia is a private investment holding company with major interests in Minas Basin Pulp & Power and several paper manufacturing companies, among other interests. Minas manufactures 100 percent recycled paperboard products. Its corporate policy is that it will meet or exceed all environmental standards and regulations, according to the company’s website.

In 2009, Newton Falls Fine Paper was chosen to custom-make recycled paper for former Vice President Al Gore’s book on climate change because of the company’s commitment to the environment. When Scott C. Travers, former president and chief operating officer of Minas Basin, was Newton Falls’ president, he talked about converting from fuel oil to biomass and using only recycled fiber to make paper.

Throughout its history, the mill has handled the waste for some of the hamlet’s homes.

“They built the housing,” Mr. Hooven said. “Prior to the sewer system, there were outhouses and the mill took care of those.”

Scotia Vice President Robert G. Patzelt said the company has bent over backwards to help the community.

“The mill has provided services although we are under no contractual obligation,” Mr. Patzelt said. “We’ve been working to provide the best transition.”

Even though the mill closed, the services continued free of charge, he said.

“There is no obligation to provide the sewage services,” he said. “There never has been.”

Mr. Hooven disagreed.

“They say they have no legal obligation,” he said. “We say they do.”

Most of the homes once serviced by the mill were separated from its system at various times, but there are widespread problems with sewage in the hamlet. Homes are close together and the amount of rock makes it difficult to install individual septic systems.

The town began working on a plan in 2007 to build a system that would handle all of the hamlet’s 130 potential users. It secured $4.3 million in funding from grants, principal forgiveness and an interest-free loan from state and federal sources. Without the mill, the projected initial annual cost per user is $577 annually.

If an agreement is reached, Scotia’s intent is to deed land at no cost to the new sewer district where the system can be built, Mr. Patzelt said. It has also offered the town free use of the plant’s system if need be if another option is not in place when the mill is shuttered.

“We have a facility that is properly licensed. They could run it,” Mr. Patzelt said. “The cost of running that facility would be theirs.”

That plan has complications, Mr. Hooven said.

The town does not have a license to run the plant. The estimated cost of running the mill’s facility for two months — until installation of a temporary holding tank for the 15 users is complete — would cost about $35,000, he said.

“Financially, we’re in no position to do it,” Mr. Hooven said.

The town cannot ask its taxpayers to take on an expense for 15 users. Instead, the cost would have to be borne by either the households involved or the sewer district as a whole, which may not be possible under the funding parameters, Mr. Hooven said.

Mr. Patzelt suggested the town hire the operators of its sewer system who will soon be out of a job, or the mill could train town personnel.

“How are we going to have time to train?” Mr. Hooven said. “We only have a week left.”

Representatives from the town, Scotia, Public Health, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, town engineering consultants and Development Authority of the North County will have a teleconference Friday to try to hammer out an agreement.

“These are people and we have to take care of them,” Ms. Kourofsky said.

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