Orrington proposal poor environmental policy

Posted March 19, 2010, at 7:11 p.m.

The Maine Board of Environmental Protection (BEP) must look at the science to resolve the debate over the final clean-up plan for the former HoltraChem site in Orrington. Extensive engineering and environmental data presented to the BEP over two recent weeks of hearings strongly suggest that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) $250 million plan to excavate 360,000 tons of soil from the site is neither necessary nor sound. I participated in those hearings as a paid adviser on behalf of Mallinckrodt, and as such, have thoroughly studied alternatives for restoring the site to a safe and protective condition.

In 2005, Maine DEP considered numerous clean-up options for the site and, along with my former agency, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), found four remedies to be fully protective of public health and the environment.

Mallinckrodt has recently proposed a fifth alternative that incorporates elements of all of the proposed alternatives to achieve a comparable and, in numerous and important ways, superior outcome in half the time and at considerably less cost. Under this proposal, Mallinckrodt would invest more than $90 million on top of the $40 million that has already been spent to eliminate the current threat of contamination to groundwater and the Penobscot River. More importantly, this plan could be implemented immediately and the town of Orrington has endorsed this option.

Protection of health and the environment rather than cost should be the most important criterion in deciding on a final clean-up plan. But both equity and common sense require that cost be considered once the threshold necessary to protect public health and the environment has been reached.

The fact that a private company, rather than the taxpayer, is picking up the tab does not justify an unnecessary remedy. If taxpayers were footing the bill for the cleanup, the public simply would not endorse a remedy three times as expensive as the next costliest plan when the less costly plan was deemed by DEP and EPA professional staff to be fully adequate and protective. And responsible environmentalists shouldn’t accept it either.

I worked with the staff at DEP for more than six years and have great respect for their work and professionalism. I admire Commissioner David Littell for his leadership on greenhouse gas issues and the reduction of airborne mercury, as well as other efforts where he has played an important role on behalf of Maine and New England.

But on this particular matter, I believe the DEP has overlooked the affects of their proposed remedy, incorrectly assuming that more money buys more protection.

In its simplest terms, the DEP’s proposed excavation of 360,000 tons of soil and its transportation by truck or rail to a landfill in Canada more than 300 miles away, would release substantially more mercury vapor into the atmosphere and add more pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) than any of the other alternatives.

The DEP plan would produce some 200 pounds of mercury vapor during the excavation and removal of soils — 50 pounds more than the next highest alternative. This is equivalent to the amount of mercury that would be released into the air if 4.5 million fluorescent light bulbs were smashed into the ground.

At a time of significant concern about global climate change, the DEP’s plan would require the use of as many as 4.6 million gallons of diesel fuel and produce about 53,000 tons of CO2 equivalents, seriously undercutting the state’s national reputation as a leader in reducing CO2 emissions and combating greenhouse gas.

The proposal by Mallinckrodt and others to leave landfills in place is a commonly accepted practice in environmental management. There are countless examples across Maine and the United States of contaminated sites being successfully and safely redeveloped, for community use. The Cianbro site in neighboring Brewer is a good example of how former industrial sites can be reused with on-site contaminants safely contained and stabilized.

The Board of Environmental Protection has a well-deserved reputation for wise and careful stewardship of Maine’s environment. The board will enhance that reputation by endorsing an alternative to the DEP order that arguably achieves greater environmental and public health benefits with less delay, fewer truck trips, lower cost and a lower risk of serious airborne mercury emissions. The BEP has the opportunity to get the remediation effort back on track.

Fiscally and environmentally responsible citizens should expect no less.

John P. DeVillars served as the New England Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 1994-2000 and is currently managing partner of BlueWave Strategies, where he did work for Mallinckrodt.

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