ORRINGTON, Maine — After selectmen voted unanimously to support a quicker rather than an extensive cleanup of the former HoltraChem site — leaving tons of contaminated sludge at the riverfront site — residents organized and collected enough signatures to hold a referendum to reverse their decision.
That vote will occur sometime in the next month, and a public hearing is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday to inform residents about what’s on the ballot.
The Maine Board of Environmental Protection is in the process of deciding the scope of the cleanup, and residents who signed the petition forms want the BEP to know the selectmen’s vote was not representative of what whey want, said Orrington resident Tim Conmee, a member of Maine People’s Alliance.
“We don’t want to leave this mess and all the negative health effects that come with it to the next generation,” he said. “It’s time for Mallinckrodt to get back to work and finish cleaning up the toxic dump they left in our town.”
Orrington Town Manager Paul White has said that the referendum vote will change little.
Mallinckrodt spokeswoman JoAnna Schooler agrees.
“The town’s wishes are obviously important, but the state Board of Environmental Protection will make the determination about what happens next,” she said Friday. “At this point, the town has endorsed our source-removal alternative to the cleanup.”
The petitioners, who included other members of the Maine People’s Alliance, a grass-roots group that has used the courts and DEP to push for a comprehensive cleanup at the former chemical plant site, turned in 185 signatures from registered Orrington voters last week, Town Clerk Susan Carson said Friday.
The petition was presented to selectmen this week, and the local referendum will be a simple majority vote, she said.
The wording on the ballot will read: “Shall the town vote to reject the board of selectmen endorsement of Mallinckrodt LLC’s proposed alternative and instead endorse the Maine Department of Environmental Protection order of November 2008, mandating complete removal off all contaminated soils from the Mallinck-rodt/HoltraChem site located on the banks of the Penobscot River.”
Mallinckrodt is contesting the DEP’s order, which requires the company to remove approximately 360,000 tons of contaminated soil from the former HoltraChem plant in town. The company would like to remove about half of the contaminated soils and cap the remaining hazardous material in four on-site landfills.
The BEP, which held public hearings about the cleanup in town and in Augusta in late January and early February, has the final say on the scope of the cleanup of the 235-acre property. The board is expected to make a decision about the project in the next couple of months.
White was the lone town official to testify before the BEP on Feb. 4, the last day of hearings. He said he was directed by selectmen to tell the BEP that they want to avoid further delays.
“It seems to be plainly understood by everyone involved in this matter that if the [DEP] commissioner’s order is imposed on Mallinckrodt, there will be further litigation … that would result in a further delay of three to five years with nothing being done,” White told the panel.
For that reason, the town is supporting a “source-removal alternative” proposed by St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt, which is a subsidiary of Covidien, a $10 billion global health care company.
Mallinckrodt’s plan would cost around $100 million and was “not the cheapest option,” Schooler has said. “We’re committed to doing what we need to do.”
Owned by various companies over the years, HoltraChem produced chemicals and pesticides from the mid-1960s to 2000, when it closed in bankruptcy.
Mallinckrodt Inc. owned and operated the plant from 1967 to 1982 and is the sole former owner still in existence. The company is in the middle of a multiphase cleanup project that already has removed tons of mercury, other contaminants and building materials from the former chemical plant site and cost the company approximately $40 million so far.
Ryan Tipping-Spitz, Maine People’s Alliance environmental organizer, anticipates a difficult campaign ahead as the issue goes to referendum.
“We know Mallinckrodt will throw tons of cash at this referendum,” he said. “They’ve already hired a pack of lawyers and public relations people. They’ll outspend anyone who stands up to them, but they can’t drown out the voices behind these signatures.”