Hearings set for HoltraChem site cleanup plan

Posted Jan. 22, 2010, at 9:29 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — State environmental regulators on Monday will begin two weeks of detailed hearings on an appeal of one of the largest environmental cleanup projects in Maine history.

Mallinckrodt LLC is contesting the state Department of Environmental Protection’s order that the company remove hundreds of thousands of tons of contaminated soil from the former HoltraChem factory site in Orrington on the banks of the Penobscot River.

The state Board of Environmental Protection will hear arguments in the case beginning at 9 a.m. Monday, Jan. 25, at the Augusta Civic Center. The board will hold an evening session to hear public testimony on the issue at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28, at Center Drive Middle School in Orrington.

The Maine People’s Alliance, a grass-roots group that has used the courts and DEP to push for a cleanup, will also present testimony during Thursday night’s hearing. All of the meetings are open to the public.

The company contends that DEP’s cleanup plans, which could cost Mallinckrodt $200 million or more, are environmentally unnecessary and could expose more residents to mercury now buried in contaminated soils on the site. Missouri-based Mallinckrodt is a subsidiary of Covidien, a $10 billion global health care company.

Company officials are instead proposing a plan they say would remove the most contaminated soil at about half the cost and in about half the 12 years it might take under the DEP order.

But DEP officials insist that removing all of the hazardous soils from several landfills on the HoltraChem site is the best way to clean up a prime, river-front property that Orrington officials hope to one day re-develop.

“It is time to do a full-scale cleanup of the site,” said Environmental Protection Commissioner David Littell.

Mallinckrodt’s appeal of the November 2008 cleanup order comes after years of cooperation between the company and the department.

Mallinckrodt has spent nearly $40 million remediating the site of the former chlor-alkali factory, which used mercury — a potent neurotoxin — in the production of chemicals used in papermaking.

Under five phases of work negotiated with DEP, the company removed nearly all buildings from the site, installed groundwater collection and treatment facilities and removed other contaminated materials. Mallinckrodt also checks quarterly for contamination in more than two dozen wells both on and off site.

But the department and company have clashed over the final and largest phase of the cleanup project.

After extended but unsuccessful negotiations, DEP ordered Mallinckrodt to remove an estimated 360,000 tons of contaminated soils from five landfills on the 235-acre property. Those soils would then be trucked or carried by train to a hazardous waste disposal facility, likely in Canada.

But Mallinckrodt has steadfastly resisted a full-scale removal of the soils, arguing that it would be faster and safer to encapsulate the soils on site.

The company’s latest proposal calls for removing the most problematic landfill, which they say contains 98 percent of the mercury and is next to the Penobscot River and a well.

Mallinckrodt officials said Friday that their plan would cost about $95 million and could be accomplished in five to six years. The DEP’s order, by contrast, would cost $200 million and take nine to 12 years.

Mallinckrodt spokeswoman JoAnna Schooler estimated that it would take 30,000 truck loads, passing through 17 communities, to remove the soils from all of the landfills. But third-party contractors hired by Mallinckrodt believe the company’s plans would meet the cleanup standards for public safety.

“What we are looking to do is reach an agreement on an approach that is reasonable and in line with standard environmental practice for a site of this type,” Schooler said.

Littell said Friday that the company held true to its threat to fight the order to remove all soils and is marshalling its considerable legal resources against the state, putting additional strain on his department.

“This is the most highly contested and adversarial matter that the department has ever dealt with,” Littell said.

Schooler and other company officials said crews continue to work daily at the HoltraChem site and that they are hoping to reach an agreement on the final phase.

“We have not stopped working on the site,” said Kathy Zeigler, director of environmental remediation at Mallinckrodt. “We may disagree with the remedy, but we have not walked away.”

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