AUGUSTA — The federal government Monday will begin a $1.4 million cleanup of hazardous materials at a defunct paper mill and its waste-water treatment plant along the east bank of the Kennebec River.
An investigator called the cleanup “time-critical” and “necessary to prevent imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and the environment.”
Tom Condon, on-scene coordinator from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Boston office, led an assessment team through the Augusta Tissue mill a month ago and documented a long list of major environmental hazards at the plant.
Investigators found 100 55-gallon drums, numerous tanks of chemicals used in the papermaking process, transformers that may contain PCB-contaminated fluid, batteries and radiation sources, numerous broken fluorescent light bulbs that might contain mercury, and dumped paint and resin cans.
“There is also the risk of incompatible chemicals mixing together and creating additional hazards such as toxic smoke clouds,” Condon wrote. “The contents of a number of drums and large solvent tanks could potentially flow into the Kennebec River either overland or via storm drains.”>/p>
A charged line containing alum ruptured in one of the buildings, apparently the result of subfreezing temperatures, Condon found.
Two part-time mill employees used propane-fueled heaters to keep chemicals from freezing during the winter — until the propane ran out last year, Condon’s report said.
Since they left, vandals have broken in a number of times and thieves have torn out copper piping.
A fire May 15 destroyed the mill’s office building, damaged other buildings in the complex and raised fears of vandalism or other tampering with the toxic leftovers.
American Tissue Mills of Maine operated the plant until August 2000, when the owners filed for bankruptcy protection.
A New York man purchased the mill, renamed it Augusta Tissue and promised it would reopen while agreeing to a tax repayment schedule with the city. But none of those plans was realized.
The state Department of Environmental Protection requested federal help in June, shortly after removing laboratory chemicals it considered an imminent hazard to human health.
City Manager William Bridgeo welcomed the EPA’s cleanup announcement.
“It’s great news that the DEP and the EPA are focused on this and the EPA is taking action. We’ve been worried at the local level about the potential significant problems that could result from this being an unattended facility, and the same potential problems have inhibited us as a city from taking over the property for tax liens,” Bridgeo said Thursday.
The city is owed more than $450,000 in back taxes for the site.
“When the fire broke out, that raised our level of concern, and the city accepted financial responsibility for keeping the fire hydrants charged,” Bridgeo said. City police also increased patrols in the area, he said.
Proposals to reopen the mill, which contains two paper machines, were floated as recently as 2004.
“There was the potential someone might come in and the mill might be viable,” Condon said. “That does not appear to be the case anymore.”>/p>
He said the cleanup will be done by Shaw Environmental of Hopkinton, Mass., during several months. The chemicals have to be shipped off-site for treatment and disposal.
Condon also said EPA will pay for the cleanup. “The owners have indicated they don’t have the funding,” he said.