BROOKSVILLE, Maine — A group of town residents will be looking for answers regarding the proposed $23 million cleanup at the former Callahan mine site later this week, and they want to make sure that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allows enough time for them to get those answers.
The residents met informally Monday to discuss the coming public meeting on the cleanup plan and to at least begin to develop a strategy to ensure that their questions are answered before the EPA makes a final decision on the plan. The meeting is set for 7 p.m. Thursday at the town office.
“I’m anxious at this point about the process,” said one man who did not identify himself. “This is just going to happen [the way the EPA wants it to] unless there is an organized group of people who will comment and ask questions.”
The site had been mined, primarily for zinc and copper, since the late 1800s, but heavy mining was conducted between 1968 and 1972. Studies have since found high levels of cadmium, copper, lead and zinc on the site and in nearby Goose Cove. The EPA identified the location as a Superfund site in 2002. Preliminary studies began in 2004, and the EPA has been working with the Maine Departments of Transportation and Environmental Protection since 2005.
The group, most of whom own property in Harborside near the site of the former mine operation, expressed concern that, even though there have been regular public meetings during the remedial investigation over the past several years, public input in the process has been limited. A technical assistance grant from the EPA provided funds for outside review of the agency’s findings, but the local advisory group has not met regularly, according to residents.
Residents at Monday’s meeting agreed that now was the time for them to air their concerns. They said that after several years of study, the 30-day official comment period on the plan was not long enough to get the information they wanted. The comment period is scheduled to begin July 10 and end Aug. 10. A public hearing on the plan is scheduled for Aug. 6 to accept oral comments.
Others at the meeting expressed concern that the EPA would not be able to respond to questions or comments within 30 days. But they also didn’t want the process to continue forever.
Some of the concerns over the cleanup at the mine site stem from the scale of the plan, which calls for much of the waste that has been deemed a hazard to human health to be deposited back into the pit from which it was mined. The open pit was flooded after mine operations ended in 1972 and is now underwater. EPA officials have said that contained aqueous disposal is an accepted technique that will keep the toxic materials from leaching off the site.
One woman at the meeting noted that EPA officials had told residents that the agency has used the technique in other locations. The woman, who did not give her name, suggested that residents find out where it has been used and whether it indeed has been successful.
The cleanup also would cap the tailings impoundment on the site and remove soil contaminated with PCBs, lead and arsenic and dispose of it at an approved off-site facility.
Residents have raised concerns about the amount of truck traffic the cleanup will bring through town. Although depositing waste in the pit will eliminate some of the traffic, residents at the meeting were still concerned that the materials to cap the tailings site will have to be delivered by truck.
Others said they would like to see some type of cost-benefit analysis from the EPA to determine whether the cleanup costs are worth it. There has been some sentiment in town that the cleanup, nearly 40 years after the mine ceased operations, is not needed, despite the EPA review.
The meeting was organized by Democratic state Rep. Jim Schatz, who locked horns with state environmental officials over the cleanup of the former Kerr-American mine site in Blue Hill, where he also serves as a selectmen. He has since raised concerns about the environmental impact of this type of cleanup.
Schatz brought with him David Critchfield and Liz Anderson, principals in EmSource, the Portland-based company that conducted the cleanup at Kerr-American. While they said EmSource is not in line to take on the Callahan cleanup, they said the residents should make sure they got the answers they needed before the EPA made a final decision.
Critchfield noted that in the Kerr-American cleanup, EmSource had difficulty trying to alter the plan once it had been approved, even though it might have saved some money.
“We learned that we needed to be involved before the plan was final,” he said.
He said residents were asking the right questions and that they needed to keep pressing the EPA until they were satisfied with the answers they got.
He also noted that the EPA regularly extends the comment period on proposals such as this plan, but added that somebody has to request it.
Residents plan to tape the public meeting on Thursday and to use a transcript as the basis for follow-up questions and comments. They agreed to meet on July 23, at the regular selectmen’s meeting, where they probably will make a formal request to extend the comment period.