Mill site cleanup on hold in Oakland

Posted Jan. 25, 2011, at 5:46 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 7:26 a.m.

OAKLAND, Maine – A year ago today, flames that could be seen from Winslow shot up 50 feet in the air as a fast-moving fire destroyed the former Cascade Woolen Mill — and exacerbated environmental problems on the property.

A cleanup of the site, which was contaminated with chemicals, had been under way in the year before the fire. Afterward, asbestos that had been inside the walls of the mill was discovered in the rubble, making the site more hazardous — and costly — to clean up.

Furthermore, in the wake of the fire, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined that the mill site didn’t qualify for the $200,000 Brownfields grant that was paying for the cleanup.

Because there’s more hazardous material at the site and less money to remove it, little has changed on the property over the past year.

Owner Michael Dye said earlier this month that he was working on a plan for the future of the site, but wouldn’t be more specific.

Dye had been running a woodworking company out of the 127-year-old mill building in downtown Oakland. The company, which made hardwood displays and store fixtures, had been in operation for 10 years before the fire.

Cascade, which once manufactured woolen sportswear fabrics for high-end women’s skirts and blazers, shut down in 1997. Once Oakland’s largest employer, the mill had 250 workers at its peak in the 1980s and early ’90s. Cascade suffered when foreign companies started offering the same products for lower prices, and, eventually, it couldn’t compete.

The condition of the site was typical of a former mill and, before the fire, had been on track to be cleaned up, said Gordon Fuller, an oil and hazardous material specialist for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

The EPA in 2009 awarded the Brownfields grant to the town of Oakland, which had been holding Dye’s mortgage. After the fire, the grant came under scrutiny by the federal agency, which determined that the town was never eligible to receive the money because it didn’t technically own the property.

The town had already spent about $117,000 of the grant in July, when it was terminated. The EPA didn’t oblige the town to pay back that grant money.

The EPA considered continuing to assist with cleanup through the agency’s removal program, according to Christine Lombard, EPA’s project officer for the site. After an assessment of the property, however, the agency determined this fall that the site wasn’t a high enough priority to receive funding from that program, Lombard said.

The DEP still may seek funding from the federal agency, said Fuller. Based on bids from environmental consulting firms, he said it would probably cost $150,000 to 175,000 to clean up the site. The cost, however, depends on the future use of the site, he said. For example, a day care would require a more extensive clean up than an industrial use would.

Fuller said the DEP plans to continue to work with Dye, but progress on cleaning up the site has stalled since the fire, which “changed things considerably,” he said.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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