ORRINGTON, Maine — Most of the contaminated buildings, tanks and piping used for chlorine, pesticides and papermaking chemicals at the now defunct HoltraChem Manufacturing Co. are gone from the 235-acre riverfront site. The next step in the cleanup, however, has pitted the company responsible for removing the waste and state officials in a battle over what to do with the remaining five outdated landfills and other contaminated soils.
State environmental officials and those from St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt Inc., which owned and operated the plant from 1967 to 1982 and is paying for the cleanup, both agree Landfill 1 — the main polluter — should be removed entirely, but are fighting over what to do with the rest of the site.
Landfill 1 sits on the banks of the Penobscot River and contains a mercury-contaminated sludge lagoon. That landfill and the area where the cell building once stood continue to leak about half a pound of mercury into the river each year, the state and independent data show.
What to do with the other four landfills and how to ensure remaining hazards don’t make their way to groundwater and the river are at the heart of the dispute between Mallinckrodt and state officials.
The Maine Board of Environmental Protection has the task of solving the dispute and is in the process of deciding the scope of the cleanup. The BEP, which held hearings in Orrington and Augusta in late January and early February, is expected to issue its decision in the next couple of months.
Here’s the history of the fight and what’s still at issue:
The U.S. Department of Justice in 1986 ordered Mallinckrodt to develop a “corrective action” plan under the guidance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after repeated pollution problems at the plant and concerns about contamination of the river. The HoltraChem plant closed in 2000 because of bankruptcy, which left Mallinckrodt as the only remaining former owner still in existence. It then began a five-phase demolition and cleanup of the site.
Mallinckrodt, a subsidiary of Covidien, a $10 billion global health care company, signed an agreement with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in 2001 to remove the contaminated buildings and mercury on the site. The company originally planned to dig up all of the landfills and encapsulate the waste on-site underneath an impermeable sealed cap, with continued monitoring.
Maine Department of Environmental Protection officials, who took over management of the cleanup project from the federal government in 2003, decided they would like to see all five landfills and any hazardous soils gone. The DEP issued an order in November 2008 that requires removal of approximately 360,000 tons of contaminated soil.
Soon after the DEP’s order, Mallinckrodt hired Portland engineering and science firm Woodard & Curran to evaluate the site and develop an alternative. Its plan, a “source removal alternative,” calls for removing 73,200 tons of contaminated soils from Landfill 1 and other contaminated areas, recapping Landfill 2, leaving the other three landfills untouched and installing groundwater extraction wells.
The DEP’s remedy would cost approximately $200 million and would eliminate the hazards and the need for future monitoring, said Stacy Ladner, the state’s project supervisor.
It is “the best remediation of the site because it removes all five landfills, and because you’re removing the landfills, you don’t have this long maintenance work. [It also] eliminates the need to capture and treat groundwater in perpetuity,” she said last week.
“We believe the project can be done in the five- to six-year range, and the cost of it [is] not all that different from [Mallinckrodt’s],” she added. “The cost is likely comparable to costs of leaving the landfills in place [when adding the costs for] treatment of groundwater forever and maintenance forever.”
Company officials say the state is unnecessarily going too far.
“There is no scientific or engineering data to justify the state’s order,” Mallinckrodt spokeswoman JoAnna Schooler said last week. “The Woodard & Curran source removal alternative would allow us to address the source of the mercury, and it’s the solution that is supported by the data.”
Mallinckrodt’s plan would cost between $90 million and $100 million, Schooler has said. Mallinckrodt already has spent more than $40 million on cleaning up the site.
Guy Vaillancourt, president of Woodard & Curran, agrees with Schooler, and said in a summary statement about his firm’s cleanup alternative that “excavation of all the landfills is unnecessary.”
Kathryn Zeigler, director of remediation for Mallinckrodt, said that in addition to removing “all the sources of the mercury, it will minimize exposure” from mercury dug up during the remediation and carbon monoxide from the trucks hauling it, and “will allow the town to reuse the site much quicker.”
State officials say Mallinckrodt’s plan would leave 40 tons, or 80,000 pounds, of mercury in four landfills, and would not reduce the long-term pollution risks to local groundwater supplies and the adjacent river. They also say it will hinder redevelopment options.
“We believe that [the DEP’s plan] will reduce the threat to public health and in the long term provide better economic redevelopment for the town,” Ladner said. “If you have hazardous waste landfills on-site, there is going to have to be an area that is blocked off. There are certain types of developments that are not going to happen near a hazardous waste landfill. That’s just a reality.”