Maine BEP backs compromise HoltraChem cleanup plan

Posted Aug. 05, 2010, at 9:13 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Board of Environmental Protection on Thursday presented a plan that would require the former owner of the HoltraChem factory in Orrington to excavate two large landfills and remove millions of pounds of contaminated soil from the riverfront site.

But in a departure from the state Department of Environmental Protection’s stance, the board’s plan would allow three other waste landfills to remain on the HoltraChem site, albeit with the installation of additional safety and environmental monitoring measures.

Board members unveiled a draft of its long-awaited cleanup order on Thursday during their regular business meeting. Absent any last-minute changes, the board is expected to take a final vote on the order Aug. 19.

The scaled-back cleanup is excepted to cost the site’s former owner, Mallinckrodt Inc., between $100 million and $200 million.

In November 2008, the Department of Environmental Protection issued an order directing Mallinckrodt to begin removing millions of pounds of contaminated soil contained in five landfills on the 295-acre HoltraChem property.

The site of a former chlor-alkali factory, the HoltraChem property is reportedly the largest source of mercury pollution in the lower Penobscot River, and cleaning it up would be one of the biggest environmental remediation projects in Maine history.

But Mallinckrodt Inc. appealed the department’s order to the BEP — an independent board of gubernatorial appointees — arguing that it would be safer, faster and cheaper to remove the most contaminated soils and encapsulate the rest on site.

After two weeks of detailed hearings last winter and numerous deliberative sessions since, the board appears to have settled on a compromise. The draft order calls for Mallinckrodt to:

• Remove Landfill 1, a 2-acre waste site located near that river that all parties acknowledge contains significant quantities of mercury and other toxic materials.

• Remove Landfill 2, which at 12,000 square feet is the smallest landfill on the site but that the state argues still poses a threat to public health and safety and the environment.

• Leave Landfills 3 and 4 in place but cover both with a single cap to prevent infiltration of rain and snowmelt. A new groundwater extraction and treatment system also must be installed.

• Leave Landfill 5 in place but cover with a new cap and update the groundwater monitoring system.

Mallinckrodt already has spent roughly $40 million removing buildings and contaminated materials as well as installing groundwater collection and treatment facilities. Those projects were accomplished through a collaborative process with the DEP.

However, the company and department have clashed over a final cleanup plan that, under the DEP’s original proposal, could cost Mallinckrodt up to $250 million.

DEP Commissioner David Littell called the board’s draft order “a fair compromise” between Mallinckrodt’s preferences and the department’s order. If the board gives the plan a final blessing in two weeks, Littell said, he hopes Mallinckrodt will embrace the order rather than attempt to draw out the cleanup in a lengthy and costly court fight.

“We still stand by the original order, but the board has labored to develop a reasonable compromise,” Littell said.

JoAnna Schooler, a Mallinckrodt spokeswoman, said the company is pleased to see that the board appears to support making “significant modifications” to the department’s cleanup order.

But the company continues to argue that Landfill 2 does not pose a threat to public health and should, therefore, be left on site. Mallinckrodt had already agreed to remove Landfill 1.

Schooler also pointed out that Orrington has voted twice in support of the company’s cleanup plan: first in a vote just among selectmen and than again last April in a town referendum.

That said, the company plans to more thoroughly review the board’s 57-page draft order in the coming weeks, Schooler said Thursday.

“We have been working on the site for the past 10 years and we are prepared to move forward with the final cleanup,” Schooler said.

Orrington Town Manager Paul White said he believes town residents can get behind the board’s cleanup plan, given last spring’s vote.

“It’s in between the two [proposals], so as far as the town’s position, I believe we can support that,” White said.

But the most important thing to the town is that work begin soon, thereby allowing Orrington to eventually redevelop the large riverfront site. White said he hopes that, even if the BEP decision is appealed, the department and Mallinckrodt can begin working on the aspects of the cleanup plan on which both parties agree, such as capping the three landfills that will stay on site.

“It’s been 10 years,” White said. “Hopefully we won’t have to wait another five years.”

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