Tons of mercury-contaminated soil remain at Orrington site
BANGOR – Hazardous materials crews recently removed more than 1,400 pounds of mercury from the former HoltraChem site in Orrington and soon will dismantle more than a dozen buildings and storage tanks during the next phase of the cleanup, Maine officials said Monday.
The state and the company that formerly owned the now-shuttered HoltraChem plant have made “significant progress” during the past three years, reducing the environmental threat posed by tons of mercury and other contaminants still found on the site, said state environmental Commissioner David Littell.
Removing the buildings and tanks – which are so contaminated that they must be treated as hazardous waste – will make the progress even more obvious, Littell said.
But the two sides have yet to agree on the biggest portion of the cleanup: what to do with hundreds of thousands of tons of mercury-tainted soil left behind when the chemical plant closed in 2000.
Littell and Gov. John Baldacci joined representatives of the Maine People’s Alliance, a grass-roots group, at Bangor’s Cascade Park to highlight the progress. The park is located within sight of the Penobscot River, several miles upstream from the HoltraChem site.
Calling HoltraChem “the top environmental cleanup site in the state,” Baldacci said removing the mercury is critically important to the health of the Penobscot River and, therefore, to the health of the people and animals living in the watershed as well as to the state’s economy.
Mercury, which HoltraChem used to produce chlorine and caustic soda for the paper industry, is a naturally occurring toxin that is known to cause severe neurological and heart problems. Humans are exposed to mercury primarily by eating contaminated fish and wildlife.
“It is unacceptable to have this level of mercury” near the Penobscot, Baldacci said. “But calling it unacceptable will not make it disappear.”
The company that formerly owned the site, St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt Inc., already has removed from the site piping, pumps and other equipment believed to be contaminated with mercury and has gutted the inside of one of the main buildings. More than a dozen tanks containing hazardous materials also were cleaned.
Mallinckrodt is in the process of cleaning or draining another 73 tanks or containers as well as cleaning and rinsing other buildings or equipment on the site. Crews removed 1,430 pounds of metallic mercury and filled 18 drums with mercury sludge during May and June alone.
The fourth phase of the cleanup, announced Monday, involves removal of seven buildings and demolition of a dozen more tanks. The company is working on completing phases three and four during the next year or longer, Littell said.
The biggest battle over cleaning up after HoltraChem likely still looms over the horizon, however.
In the fall of 2005, Baldacci and Littell’s predecessor as commissioner, Dawn Gallagher, announced plans to require Mallinckrodt to remove an estimated 370,000 tons of mercury-contaminated soil now contained primarily in landfills on the site.
The soil would be trucked to treatment facilities, alleviating concerns about lingering or future contamination as the town of Orrington attempts to convert the riverside property from an environmental liability to an economic asset.
Mallinckrodt officials have rejected the disposal plan, which would cost the company $100 million to $200 million.
Instead, Mallinckrodt officials have argued that encapsulating the contaminated soil on-site is more logistically feasible, faster, and potentially safer because of the risks of exposing and then moving the mercury-laden soil.
Mallinckrodt is being held economically responsible for the cleanup because it is the only former owner of the site that is still in business.
Tons more mercury are believed to lie at the bottom of the Penobscot as well as in areas downstream. A federal judge has ordered an extensive study of the river between Veazie and Penobscot Bay to determine the extent of the mercury pollution and its ecological impact. The study was expected to take another four years to complete.
Littell said DEP officials are trying to get as much cleanup done on the site before ordering the company to remove the soil, which some fear could prompt Mallinckrodt to slow down or back away from the remediation project.
“We are moving forward deliberately and prudently to protect the Penobscot River and the people that live on it,” Littell told reporters at the press conference.
Mallinckrodt officials did not reply to requests for comment by Monday evening.
Adam Goode, the Penobscot Valley organizer for the Maine People’s Alliance, described the HoltraChem cleanup as a “concrete example of what gets done when citizens voice concerns.” MPA has been involved in HoltraChem issues since 1988 and was a partner in a precedent-setting legal victory holding the company accountable for pollution downstream of the plant.
The HoltraChem case is “an opportunity where citizens have made a big difference,” said Goode. “For years, citizens in the Orrington area have made a lot of noise about the HoltraChem cleanup.”