May 2, 2010

Waste knot: Toxic threat on banks of the Penobscot

By Beth Quimby
Staff Writer

ORRINGTON - At this time of year, the Penobscot River flows dark and deep, draining the second-largest watershed in New England -- and one of the most pristine.

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Ryan Tipping-Spitz, left, environmental organizer with the Maine People’s Alliance, and Tim Conmee, a resident of Orrington and MPA member, walk along the Penobscot River, where erosion has been a problem because, the DEP says, groundwater is leaking into five tainted landfills.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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Additional Photos Below

But as the river passes through the town of Orrington, it picks up an added ingredient: mercury leaking from five landfills on the riverbank at the former HoltraChem Manufacturing Co. plant. The polluted water then flows past Bucksport and into Penobscot Bay, past the coastal tourist towns of Castine, Camden and Rockland, the big summer homes on the islands of Islesboro, North Haven and Vinalhaven, and into the fishing grounds of the Gulf of Maine.

"This is not just an Orrington issue. This river is so valuable to Maine's economy," said Ryan Tipping-Spitz of Bangor, an organizer with the Maine People's Alliance, an advocacy group that has been pushing for a cleanup at HoltraChem for decades.

The mercury contamination at the plant, once described by Gov. John Baldacci as the worst hazardous waste site in the state, has been the focus of a cleanup effort dating to the 1980s.

Now, the extent of the cleanup lies in the hands of the Board of Environmental Protection. It will meet Thursday to consider two approaches.

One, backed by its own staff in the Department of Environmental Protection, would order Mallinckrodt LLC, the company responsible for the site, to remove all five contaminated landfills at a cost of $250 million. The other, proposed by the company, would remove one landfill, at a cost of $100 million, and leave the rest.

At issue is whether the mercury contamination can be left safely in the ground or whether removing it all is the safest solution. For many of the 3,622 residents of this Bangor suburb, those questions still have no clear answers -- despite years of study by government regulators and private consultants.

"Does anybody really know?" asked Lee Washburn, who has lived next to the plant since 1991.

The chemical plant opened in 1967 on 235 wooded acres next to the river. It was owned by International Minerals and Chemical Corp., which later became the Mallinckrodt Group, a Hazelwood, Mo., subsidiary of Covidien, a global health company.

The plant manufactured chlorine, caustic soda and chlorine bleach for the paper industry, using a manufacturing process that used mercury. Sludge left over from the process, containing mercury and various chemical compounds, was buried in five landfills on the site until 1981.

Mallinckrodt sold the plant in 1982. The plant's last owners, HoltraChem, are no longer in business, so Mallinckrodt is the only operator of the plant left to pick up the cleanup costs.

Mercury released from the HoltraChem plant washed into the sediments of the river and has been detected in the tissue of fish. Almost all human exposure to mercury, which can damage the brain and kidneys, is through fish consumption.

Eels, lobster, Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrows and other wildlife in or near the Penobscot -- especially near the plant site -- have higher mercury concentrations than populations in any other river in Maine.

So far, Mallinckrodt has spent about $40 million on the site. Most of the buildings and 1 million pounds of contaminated soil have been removed, and a treatment system has been installed to extract mercury from the groundwater.

The Maine People's Alliance and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the state's major environmental advocacy group, sued the company in federal court. A judge ordered Mallinckrodt to fund a two-part, $4 million independent study to determine the feasibility of cleaning up mercury contamination downriver from Orrington. That study is still under way.

The next step is to deal with the 80,000 pounds of mercury remaining in the landfills.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Selectman Howard Grover backs a company plan to remove one of five mercury-laden landfills.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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A state board will begin deliberating Thursday on two approaches to cleaning up landfills on the bank of the Penobscot River.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer


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