GARDINER — The idea that a crematorium might operate near her home bothers Judith Skehan.
Her property abuts Oak Grove Cemetery.
The president of the Oak Grove Cemetery Association, Russell Greenleaf, is seeking approval from the Planning Board to move crematory equipment into an existing receiving tomb where bodies were once kept during winter months.
As an abutter, Skehan, 74, of Pierce Street, said she received a letter from the city about a Planning Board meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall to discuss the proposal.
“We got the letter and then started talking about it and thought, ‘Oh no. This isn’t so great,'” Skehan said. “I almost came to tears about it.
“It seems like someone always wants to disturb our neighborhood. This cemetery is abutted by houses. It’s not like the one in Augusta that’s out of the way and just affects a few. I have a friend whose house backs right up to the (proposed crematory) and I don’t know what she’s going to do. She’s in Japan right now and doesn’t know about this.”
Greenleaf said the proposal has been in the works since April and that a nonprofit holding corporation would run the operation.
He said a crematorium will help the association come up with needed funds to maintain the 27-acre cemetery at 45 Danforth St.
“We have a number of acres left in that cemetery,” Greenleaf said. “When that property is sold, there are no more lots, no more income, and we need a way to generate funds for upkeep, stone repair and tree removal. It costs thousands of dollars every year just for mowing.”
Lynn Gerard, who lives within 300 feet of the cemetery on Gary Street, said she wants to know more about the project. Even if the association installs the most modern technology in the crematorium, she said there are risks involved.
“I have read many articles where this is very much an issue,” Gerard said. “I’m concern about traffic, odor, the ash, mercury coming from the smokestack, and the proposed entrance on Plummer Street. The bigger piece to my husband and I is the valuation of our property. Quite frankly, when you go online and read about crematories, you find a heck of a lot of negatives, not a lot of positives.”
She said another issue is proximity to schools. Laura E. Richards school is within a half mile on Brunswick Avenue, and a Head Start center for preschool children is located on Plummer Street, she said. The cemetery has two entrances, Plummer Street and Danforth Street.
Mercury is released from some dental fillings when human remains are incinerated, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, said mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys and developing fetus. Very young children are more sensitive to mercury. They can develop problems in their nervous and digestive systems and kidney damage.
“I’d just like more detail about it so people around us know what’s going on,” Gerard said. “I haven’t seen anything on it and I think this is kind of a big issue. The letter (from the city) doesn’t really tell you the whole story.”
Gerard and Skehan said they both plan on attending Tuesday’s Planning Board meeting.
Jason Simcock, the city’s director of planning and development, said the City Council revised a city ordinance to allow a crematorium in the High Density Residential Zoning District.
He could not say whether the operation would affect property values.
“The thing that people will be concerned about is the air emissions,” Simcock said. “It has to meet Environmental Protection Agency’s standard for air emissions, but that’s what the applicant will be talking more about at the Planning Board meeting.”
Emission from crematories is a health issue, according to Matt Prindiville of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
“The basic problem with mercury emissions from cremation facilities is the fact that pollution control technology is incredibly expensive,” Prindiville said. “Usually, you only see this technology in massive industries with significant mercury emissions. Even a small crematory causes environmental issues. At least with a large facility, you know the pollution control is capturing 90 to 95 percent of the mercury.”
Greenleaf said the association has all the safety and federal permits, including air emissions, needed to operate a crematorium and that the plan has met fire, police, water district and public works requirements.
He said there would be no odor, traffic would be minimal, and only people transporting bodies in vans or limousines from funeral homes would come to the crematory by the Plummer Street entrance.
A 1,000-gallon propane tank would be installed to fire up the crematory, he said. The city has already issued permits to renovate a small office space attached to the tomb and build a parking lot.
He said cremation is becoming a trend in the burial industry.
About 60 percent of the people who contact the association are asking to be cremated, Greeenleaf said.
“People should come with their questions and concerns to the meeting,” he said. “We’re not out to offend anybody. We’ve been working on this since April and spent a great deal of time working with the city and state. The cemetery can’t exist on what it gets now and the city isn’t receptive to taking it over.
“We just want to meet the demand of what people want and be able to pay our bills.”
He said the crematory is capable of incinerating seven bodies a day, but he doesn’t expect it to operate at full capacity in the beginning.
Melanie Loyzim, section manager for air toxics and emission inventory for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection Bureau of Air Quality, said statutory limits for mercury emissions established by Maine legislators beginning in 2010 would limit them to 25 pounds per year.
Until then, the crematorium can emit 35 pounds per year.