Board of Environmental Protection rejects delay of HoltraChem pollution cleanup

Posted July 16, 2009, at 8:51 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Board of Environmental Protection on Thursday rejected an appeal by the former owner of the HoltraChem plant in Orrington that likely would have delayed an estimated $200 million cleanup of the polluted site.

Last fall, the Department of Environmental Protection ordered St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt to begin removing millions of pounds of contaminated soil from the HoltraChem site, which state officials argue is likely the largest source of mercury pollution in the lower Penobscot River.

Since then, the company has filed a number of appeals arguing, among other things, that the order was politically motivated and that the board lacked the rules to review it fairly.

On Thursday, the board voted unanimously to move forward later this year with an anticipated review of the evidence supporting the order, despite Mallinckrodt’s call for a lengthy rule-making process first.

“I think we will get the evidence we need to make a good, sound, rational decision,” said board member Richard Gould. “That’s what the board is all about.”

Mallinckrodt is the sole remaining former owner of the chloralkali facility that operated along the banks of the Penobscot for decades until 2000.

The company already has spent more than $35 million cleaning up and removing most of the buildings and treating groundwater tainted with mercury and other toxic chemicals. But Mallinckrodt has resisted DEP calls for the company to remove more than 350,000 tons of contaminated soil for outside treatment. Instead, the company says, it would be safer and more cost-effective to encapsulate the soils on site.

On Thursday, Mallinckrodt attorneys reiterated claims that Gov. John Baldacci made the decision rather than DEP staff who had supported encapsulation.

“The governor is, to my knowledge, not a hydrologist or geochemist … or really dug into the options in that matter, and we feel the decision was made for political reasons,” said Jeff Talbert, an attorney with Preti Flaherty.

Department officials have insisted that removing the contaminated soils is the only way to clean up the entire site for the long term. Orrington officials hope to redevelop the site.

Talbert said the law requires that the department create new rules to guide a board review of what some say could be the largest environmental cleanup in Maine history. But BEP members and a representative of the Attorney General’s Office said a detailed procedural order that has been put in place, combined with flexibility allowed the board, will ensure a fair hearing.

“Mallinckrodt has had input all along the way, and they will continue to, as well as the [DEP] commissioner as well as the intervenors,” said Assistant Attorney General Peter LaFond.

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