Last month, Mallinckrodt Inc. paid the town of Orrington $175,000 to buy back 63 acres of contaminated land under the chemical factory it once operated along the Penobscot River.
The payment was final fulfillment of a 2010 deal between Orrington and the St. Louis-based company, which also provided the town $1.5 million for site monitoring and redevelopment.
Yet when any of this can occur is unknown.
A six-year battle between the state and Mallinckrodt is now before Maine’s highest court, after a February hearing that revealed toxic mercury levels in the Penobscot from the factory site, closing fishing in a 7-square-mile area.
The factory, HoltraChem, operated from 1967 to 1982. It produced 23,000 pounds of toxic mercury waste each year while making chemicals for papermaking and other industries. Mallinckrodt is the last remaining owner of HoltraChem still in existence.
The town acquired the land several years ago through tax delinquency, but Mallinckrodt was deemed responsible for cleanup of the contaminated portion of the 235-acre property.
Environmental covenants on former HoltraChem land in Orrington not considered contaminated, about 170 acres, also must be lifted before the town can move forward, according to town officials.
“As of this date, no monies have been expended on redevelopment as the town awaits the release of restrictive covenants on the remainder of the property that has been determined not to have contamination,” said Town Manager Paul White.
“The town is currently working with [Maine Department of Environmental Protection] to remove such restrictions.”
Stacy Ladner, an environmental specialist for DEP, said the covenant — which was placed by HoltraChem — means the town and state must collaborate on future redevelopment plans.
“Basically, the town has to propose what they want to do for development or whatever work they want to do,” Ladner said.
“What we’ve suggested to them is working on maybe laying out their industrial park, their roadways, their utilities, something that we could take a look at, make sure that all the provisions are in place,” she added. “That would be a good step for right now since the remediation isn’t completed.”
Mallinckrodt has spent tens of millions of dollars over the years removing metallic mercury, mercury sludge and contaminated storage tanks and buildings from the site, according to company and town officials.
The company, however, has been locked in a legal and regulatory battle with the state since 2008, when Department of Environmental Protection officials ordered Mallinckrodt to begin removing an estimated 360,000 tons of material in the five landfills on the property.
Mallinckrodt argued that the “dig-and-haul” remediation approach would cost as much as $250 million, compared with an alternative $40 million plan of encapsulating the contaminated materials on site, which the company says also would be safer and more expedient.
Mallinckrodt appealed the 2008 order to the Board of Environmental Protection.
That citizen board agreed in 2010 to modify some parts of the 2008 cleanup order, saying the company could leave three of the five landfills on site after upgrading systems to prevent and detect pollution runoff into nearby groundwater sources.
White said the town has requested that restrictions on its land be eased and asked that state environmental officials specify what they would consider acceptable reuses of the site.
“This is an industrial site,” White said, adding it’s unlikely it would be used in a medical or other nonindustrial capacity.
He said the town hoped to see the legal issues surrounding the cleanup resolved by the end of this summer.
But, Ladner said, the time frame for the actual cleanup will be counted in years, not months.
“We’re in court at this point,” she said. “We don’t know when we’re going to get a decision from the court or what it will say, but probably the remediations will be three to five years once work starts.”