NEWPORT, Maine — Residents concerned about pollution flowing south from Corinna pressured an official with the Environmental Protection Agency to rethink pulling out of the area that some say was once the most polluted waterway in Maine.
Edward Hathaway, the EPA’s project manager for the clean-up of the former Eastland Woolen Mill site in Corinna, spent more than an hour Wednesday night trying to convince about 30 people at a meeting of the Newport selectmen that further monitoring of the East Branch of the Sebasticook River isn’t necessary because the level of toxins there are not a threat to humans.
Hathaway’s assurances didn’t convince several residents that the toxins embedded in the river mud wouldn’t eventually find their way to Sebasticook Lake. Some residents, citing hunters and fishermen who frequent the area for 60 or more days per year, suggested that the EPA might be mistaken in its belief that no humans spend enough time there to suffer the ill effects of toxins dumped into the river by the Eastland Woolen Mill and other factories formerly located upstream.
“We feel like we’ve always been getting dumped on,” said Board of Selectman Chairman Thomas Breitweg. “We’d like monitoring to be done at least once a year. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. There’s no money being spent in Newport, and we’re getting all the problems.”
The EPA has spent some $50 million cleaning up the portion of river located between downtown Corinna and Sebasticook Lake in Newport. Even more has been spent in Corinna to remove the former woolen mill and thousands of cubic yards of contaminated soil. Hathaway said scientific data collected over the years have revealed only trace amounts of harmful chemicals in the riverbed — far less than is harmful to humans. Furthermore, said Hathaway, those chemicals aren’t likely to move unless there is an unprecedented natural disaster that moves a huge amount of silt and soil toward Newport.
“If that ever happens, you need to let us know,” said Hathaway. “What it comes down to is the constraints we all deal with to do our jobs. We always have more needs than we have funding.”
Maxine Pare, president of the Sebasticook Lake Association, said she remembers the days when the river and lake couldn’t support life at all.
“I’m pleased that it’s so much better than when I was a kid,” she said.
Hathaway said a sustained monitoring program that would yield valuable data would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, which the EPA is unlikely to pay for because the pollution doesn’t meet certain thresholds. However, he told selectmen that he would conduct a risk assessment for the town that will determine the likelihood of the situation changing for the worst. Hathaway will present the results of that assessment at a future meeting.
In unrelated business, selectmen rejected a proposal by the Sebasticook Valley Community Center board of trustees to lease sports and recreation equipment to the town until April 2012 for $2,000. The town has taken over a range of recreation programs after selectmen decided to withhold $100,000 in funding from the community center earlier this year amid a criminal investigation into funds missing from the center. As of Wednesday, the town took over the lease of the former Armory building on North Street, which was the community center’s headquarters.