Tannery site avoids flood damage

Posted Dec. 31, 2010, at 8:28 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 05, 2011, at 7:25 p.m.

HOWLAND, Maine — Unusually high Penobscot River water levels slightly dislodged an erosion control blanket last week but otherwise did no damage to the former tannery building site, Town Manager Jane Jones said Friday.

Set down on the site in mid-December, the more than 30-foot-wide blanket runs about the entire length of the riverbank bordering the site and did a pretty good job of keeping the bank intact.

“It helped. We didn’t anticipate water getting that high that quick. If it wasn’t there, [the high water] would have produced more of a problem,” said Michael Harris, a member of the Board of Selectmen who is also a subcontractor on the tannery cleanup project.

“The majority of the erosion control blanket is still in place. [The high water] won’t do any more damage than it already has. The worst that will happen if the high waters return is it will move the erosion control blanket,” Harris added.

Once home to the town’s largest employer, the tannery site is part of Penobscot River Restoration Trust’s plans to build a fish bypass, green some tannery land, and dig a channel for the bypass in a project designed to open nearly 1,000 miles of habitat to Atlantic salmon, alewives and other sea-run fish now blocked from migrating upriver.

As part of the project, town officials hope to develop contaminated land not occupied by the bypass. The town was awarded a $600,000 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant in May 2009 to pay for the removal of contaminants left on three shoreline spots.

A feasibility study indicated that removing all buildings and contaminants would cost about $4 million, Jones has said.

The cleanup began in July and likely will finish this spring. Harris’ company, M.O. Harris Inc., took more than 50 tons of contaminated soil to the Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town for storage, he said.

Harris was allowed to bid on the project, and won the contract for the soil removal job as the lowest bidder among several companies, after a town-hired attorney reviewed and helped update the town’s conflict of interest policies to conform to state law. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection also signed a statement agreeing that his getting the contract complied with state law, Jones said.

The soil removal, Harris said, had been delayed by the discovery of several obstacles that were unknown to his company and CES Inc., the Brewer-based civil engineer overseeing the project. The obstacles included underground pipes not shown on any maps.

At this point, the former sediment pond laced with chromium and other heavy metals has been emptied of contaminants and filled in with clean soil. The installation of a cover system designed by CES, DEP and his company, which will safely bury remaining contaminants, and the re-vegetation of the site will occur by late spring, Harris said.

The control blanket also will be repositioned within the next week or so, Jones and Harris said.

The town also plans to build a walking trail on the property and riverbank and install a new municipal boat landing.

Under present plans, the tannery buildings will remain standing, though Jones and other town officials continue to search for federal or state funding to pay for the razing of those buildings.

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