Need, safety of cleanup questioned

Posted Jan. 25, 2010, at 9:49 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — State environmental officials began making their case Monday for a $200 million cleanup of the HoltraChem site in Orrington, arguing that contaminants in five outdated landfills threaten groundwater supplies and the Penobscot River.

But attorneys for the factory’s former owners, Mallinckrodt LLC, questioned the necessity and safety of undertaking what would likely be one of the largest and costliest cleanup projects in Maine history.

Monday was the first day of two weeks of hearings before the Board of Environmental Protection on Mallinckrodt’s appeal of an order requiring the company to remove five large landfills located on the riverside industrial site. An additional public hearing is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Orrington.

An estimated 360,000 tons of dirt contaminated with mercury and other hazardous substances are buried in the five landfills. Most of the other remnants of the former chemical factory already have been removed by Mallinckrodt in recent years at a cost of nearly $40 million.

But in opening statements to the board, an attorney for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Peter LaFond, said that the HoltraChem site remains one of the state’s top mercury polluters despite the cleanup to date.

LaFond argued that the only way to make the property safe for redevelopment and address the long-term pollution risks to local groundwater supplies and the adjacent river is to completely remove the contaminated soil.

“Mercury is what we call an immortal waste,” LaFond said. “It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t decompose. It doesn’t break down. So the solution for mercury has to be long term as well.”

But Mallinckrodt’s attorney, Jeffrey Talbert, countered in his opening remarks that the DEP’s own technical staff had questioned the logistics and practicality of removing the landfills several years before the cleanup order was issued in November 2008.

Digging up and transporting the dirt by trucks or train could expose the public and groundwater supplies to contaminants now buried in what the company argues are stable and contained landfills, he said.

“If the technical data does not support removing the landfills, how does the department make its case?” Talbert said. “Unfortunately, they rely on fear.”

Instead, Mallinckrodt has proposed removing the most problematic landfill — one closest to the Penobscot River — at a cost of roughly $95 million. As in the state’s proposal, any contaminated dirt would be trucked or hauled by train to a hazardous waste disposal facility in Canada.

Mallinckrodt would then re-cap the other four landfills, leaving them on-site and likely restricting access to the areas. Talbert said the company’s proposal would cost half as much, take half as long to complete — five to six years versus nine to 12 for the DEP’s proposal — yet still meet pollution standards, he said.

“There is a difference between a need and a want,” Talbert said. “As you review the evidence, ask yourself is that necessary or is this ‘a want.’”

The former factory operated for more than three decades along the banks of the Penobscot, producing chlorine, hydrochloric acid and other chemicals for the paper industry. It was the largest taxpayer in Orrington before closing for good in 2000.

But it was also a major industrial polluter. In the early years, waste mercury and other chemicals were discharged directly into the Penobscot. Beginning around 1970, the company began storing the waste in simple, unlined landfills built on-site.

The integrity of those landfills today was the focus of testimony provided by DEP staff on Monday.

Fred Lavallee, an engineer with the DEP’s Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management, testified that modern hazardous waste landfills feature more than a dozen layers, including several heavy-duty liners both on the bottom and top.

The landfills on the HoltraChem site were built well before any of these standards and are in locations that expose groundwater to contamination. And although impermeable covers were installed, Lavallee said he believes the covers were likely damaged during construction.

“This is not a good site for hazardous waste,” he said. “You’ve got an immortal waste and it is in a mortal container.”

But Mallinckrodt spokesman JoAnna Schooler said Monday evening that 98 percent of the contamination is coming from the landfill that the company has agreed to remove. The remaining 2 percent would be met by removing an old process lagoon and other contaminated soils on the site, she said.

The four other landfills at the center of the dispute are well contained, she said.

“Removal of the remaining landfills provides no additional benefit because the groundwater around the landfills is already meeting the state’s standards,” Schooler said. Additionally, monitors in place around the other four landfills would detect any problems in the future.

The BEP hearings will continue at the Augusta Civic Center today at 8 a.m. Thursday’s hearing in Orrington is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at Center Drive Middle School at 17 School St.