By Dawn Gagnon, BDN Staff
Bangor Daily News news story
BANGOR, Maine — A federal court judge issued a ruling Wednesday ordering that an engineering firm be hired to develop a plan to clean up mercury deposited in the Penobscot River by a defunct Orrington chemical plant.
HoltraChem, which operated from 1967 to 1982, produced 23,000 pounds of toxic mercury waste each year while making chemicals for papermaking and other industries until the adoption of significant hazardous waste disposal regulations.
Conducting and paying for the cleanup is Mallinckrodt Inc., the last remaining owner of HoltraChem still in existence. The cleanup effort could cost as much as $130 million, according to court documents filed in conjunction with litigation over the pollution.
Mallinckrodt has spent tens of millions of dollars over the years removing metallic mercury, mercury sludge and contaminated storage tanks and buildings from the site but not from the riverbed, according to company and town officials.
In addition, a court-ordered scientific study found that 6 to 12 tons of mercury were discharged from HoltraChem into the Penobscot River between 1967 and the early 1970s.
Smaller amounts have been released since then, and at least 9 tons of the metal are still in sediments of the upper and lower Penobscot estuary, the study concluded.
In June 2015, U.S. District Judge John Woodcock ruled against Mallinckrodt after hearing closing arguments in a lawsuit. Woodcock said at the time that he would issue a written order creating study panel of engineers to recommend solutions and seek a special master to oversee it. Woodcock wrote in the order issued Wednesday that he had changed his mind.
“However, upon discussion with counsel and upon further reflection, the Court has concluded that the appointment of a single engineering firm would be preferable,” the judge said. “One advantage of a study panel for Phase II was that the panel could call in experts in specific areas as necessary. By contrast, an engineering firm should have the in-house capacity to make many of the remedial recommendations.”
The judge asked the parties to recommend an engineering firm. He also appointed retired Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Susan Calkins to serve as the special master.
In evaluating the recommendations of the engineering firm, Woodcock said he would consider the following factors:
— Whether the proposed solution has been successfully attempted before or is innovative
— The likely cost of the solutions
— The length of time it would take to complete the recommendations.
— The likely effectiveness of the solution
— Any potential environmental harm that may be caused by the proposed solution
Attempts to reach Steven R. Guidry of Brusly of Louisiana, who was listed as Mallinckrodt’s point of contact in court documents, for comment were not successful Wednesday night.
The federal lawsuit against the Mallinckrodt US LLC was brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Maine’s People Alliance in 2000.
“[Judge Woodcock] found that the pollution has caused irreparable harm to the environment,” the two groups said Tuesday night in a news release. “To remedy the problem, he ordered a full-scale search for a viable cleanup, which Mallinckrodt will have to bankroll.”
“It is justice for the Maine communities who suffered for too long at the hands of this powerful corporation,” Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Nancy Marks said. “The court was clear: The contamination is severe and it is threatening people’s health. The mercury has got to go.”
Maine People’s Alliance Executive Director Jesse Graham agreed.
“For too long this pollution has put people’s health, jobs and wildlife at risk,” Graham said.
The court-ordered study found several species of fish and shellfish, including lobsters and crabs, have mercury concentrations that exceed safe thresholds, and people who eat the contaminated fish may be at risk of serious harm.
As a result, the state last year halted lobster and crab harvesting early last year in a 7-square-mile area.
BDN writer Judy Harrison contributed to this report.