A Way Forward in Orrington

Posted Aug. 30, 2010, at 7:19 p.m.

The long-stalled cleanup of the former HoltraChem plant got a major push forward earlier this month when the Board of Environmental Protection ordered a former owner of the facility to remove two landfills from the riverfront site.

Hours after the BEP decision, Mallinckrodt officials announced plans to begin work on removing the most heavily polluted landfill on the site and building a new groundwater treatment system. Company officials said they are prepared to invest an additional $100 million on the cleanup effort. Mallinckrodt Inc. has already spent $40 million on the site.

Cleanup of the former plant in Orrington had been on hold since 2008, when Mallinckrodt appealed a Department of Environmental Protection order to remove five landfills from the 235-acre site on the Penobscot River. Since then, the company launched a PR campaign to encourage the town of Orrington to push the agency to adopt Mallinckcrodt’s plan — which was to leave four of five landfills intact — in the name of making the site available for redevelopment as quickly as possible.

While economic development for Orrington is important, so too is ensuring that the site, where mercury was used and leached into the river, is safe. The BEP order appears to strike this balance.

After months of review and hearings, the board last week ruled that Mallinckrodt must remove two landfills, while allowing the company to leave three in place. It also must build new caps for these landfills as well as groundwater extraction and treatment system and a groundwater monitoring system.

All parties agreed that Landfill No. 1, which is closest to the Penobscot River and contains the most hazardous waste, had to be removed.

The controversy now centers on Landfill No. 2, which contains mercury and is bordered by a stream. No testing has been done on Landfill No. 2 since 2001 and that test was done in August, when the groundwater level was low.

The DEP says the landfill should be removed because its clay cap is cracked and the stream increasingly flows into the landfill, which can lead to both contaminated groundwater and surface water.

Mallinckrodt contends that the landfill should be left in place with a system to divert the water. It could also be monitored for groundwater contamination. The DEP estimates removing this landfill will cost $26 million.

The company said it may appeal this portion of the BEP decision.

The good news is that both environmental regulators and Mallinckrodt officials say they are eager for cleanup work to restart.

“We can get back to work immediately and essentially pick up where we left off on the parts of the cleanup where there is no disagreement among the parties,” Kathryn A. Zeigler, director of environmental remediation for Mallinckrodt, said in a press release last week. “Whatever happens in the appeal process, we have a lot of work to do and we are anxious to get started.”

Restarting the cleanup work is a big step toward the goal of finally turning this dangerous, contaminated site into a safe place for redevelopment.

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