AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Board of Environmental Protection on Thursday ordered the former owner of the HoltraChem factory in Orrington to remove two large landfills from a site blamed for leaching massive quantities of mercury into the Penobscot River.
By unanimous vote, the BEP rejected Mallinckrodt Corp.’s appeal of a 2008 cleanup order of the HoltraChem site from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
But in a major compromise, the board agreed to allow Mallinckrodt to leave three additional landfills on site after upgrading systems meant to prevent and detect pollution of nearby groundwater sources.
The compromise appeared sufficient to restart cleanup of a 235-acre riverfront site that Orrington officials desperately hope to redevelop.
Perhaps most importantly, Mallinckrodt officials announced plans to begin work on removing the most heavily polluted landfill on the site. Company officials said Thursday they are prepared to invest an additional $100 million on the cleanup effort.
But Mallinckrodt also made clear that it likely would appeal aspects of the BEP’s order, most notably the required removal of Landfill No. 2. The company contends the removal is unnecessary and will expose nearby residents to harmful air emissions.
“We are ready to move ahead where there is agreement,” company spokeswoman JoAnna Schooler said moments after the vote. However, Schooler added, the company believes it has legitimate grounds for an appeal on other parts of the order.
In a statement released by Mallinckrodt, Orrington Town Manager Paul White said he hopes to see cleanup work begin again soon.
“We’re pleased that Mallinckrodt is prepared to get back to work right away,” White said. “We remain hopeful for similar collaboration from the Maine DEP so that work can immediately begin on aspects of the final cleanup where there is full agreement.”
HoltraChem Manufacturing Co. produced chlorine and other chemicals at the factory beginning in the mid-1960s. At the time the factory closed in 2000, HoltraChem was New England’s largest polluter of mercury, a neurotoxin that is particularly dangerous to the development of young children and fetuses.
As the sole former owner of HoltraChem still in business, Mallinckrodt has spent $40 million removing metallic mercury, mercury sludge and contaminated storage tanks and buildings from the site.
But the company has been locked in a legal and regulatory battle with the state since 2008 when DEP officials ordered Mallinckrodt to begin removing the estimated 360,000 tons of material in the five landfills.
Mallinckrodt appealed to the BEP, arguing it would be safer and faster to encapsulate most of the contaminated materials on site. The company has since endorsed a plan to remove Landfill 1 — which contains the most hazardous waste — and leave the other four after making safety and environmental improvements.
Sue Lessard, chairwoman of the BEP, said the volunteer board settled on the compromise plan after a thorough review — including two weeks of hearings — of the materials.
“The whole point of this is to have a resolution” to the long-standing issue, Lessard said.
Tim Conmee, an Orrington resident who attended Thursday’s meeting, questioned the wisdom of leaving the three landfills on site. Conmee said he fears his children or grandchildren may have to grapple with the issue again if the landfills begin leaching toxic chemicals into the groundwater or river.
But Conmee also was pleased to see “a light at the end of the tunnel.”
“I think it’s a decision we have to live with,” said Conmee, who is active with the Maine People’s Alliance, a grassroots group that has pushed aggressively to force Mallinckrodt to conduct a full cleanup of the site. “We have to move forward with the cleanup.”
The BEP order allows Mallinckrodt to leave Landfills 3, 4 and 5 on site, but will require the company to install new, impervious caps to prevent rain and snowmelt from infiltrating the waste piles.
Additionally, the company is required to install a new groundwater extraction and treatment system for Landfills 3 and 4 and to update the groundwater monitoring system for Landfill 5.