Federal trial over mercury cleanup in Penobscot River begins in Bangor

A trial over the cleanup of mercury in the Penobscot River began Tuesday at the Margaret Chase Smith federal building in Bangor.
A trial over the cleanup of mercury in the Penobscot River began Tuesday at the Margaret Chase Smith federal building in Bangor.
Posted June 03, 2014, at 9:40 a.m.
Last modified June 03, 2014, at 7:24 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The chairman of a three-person independent team tasked in 2004 with studying mercury levels in the Penobscot River and Penobscot Bay south of the former HoltraChem plant in Orrington spent nearly six hours Tuesday in federal court answering questions about what the panel discovered.

Dr. John Rudd, who holds a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Manitoba in Canada, testified before U.S. District Judge John Woodcock that scientists found significant mercury contamination from the area just north of the former riverfront chemical plant extending several miles south, from Veazie to Bucksport. The contamination levels dropped off in Penobscot Bay.

Rudd’s testimony dominated the first day of a civil trial stemming from a 2000 lawsuit filed by the Maine People’s Alliance and Natural Resources Defense Council against Mallinckrodt Inc., the former owner of the now defunct chemical plant. The suit seeks to force Mallinckrodt, a subsidiary of global health care products giant Covidien, to clean up the mercury contamination in the river and bay.

Rudd said the panel, which included Drs. Christopher Whipple and Nicholas Fisher, and its investigators also found mercury levels that exceeded Maine’s limits of 0.2 parts per million in several species of river wildlife consumed by humans.

“We looked at various fish species, lobsters, crab and black ducks,” said Rudd, who when hired had 25 years experience as a research scientist with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. “After our data came back, we did observe [the contamination in the species] did exceed the guidelines.”

The U.S. Department of Justice in 1986 ordered Mallinckrodt to develop a “corrective action” plan under the guidance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after repeated pollution problems at the plant and concerns about contamination of the river. The HoltraChem plant closed in 2000 because of bankruptcy, which left Mallinckrodt as the only remaining former owner still in business.

The Maine People’s Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council Inc. filed the lawsuit against Mallinckrodt claiming that state and federal regulatory agencies were not doing enough to address mercury pollution problems in the Penobscot River below the plant, which sat on 235 acres.

The two environmental groups won a landmark legal victory against the company in 2002, which was found responsible for the pollution that occurred between 1967 and the early 1970s when tons of mercury was dumped into the river.

“When mercury was first put into the river, they didn’t know it was toxic,” Rudd testified.

Since 2002, Mallinckrodt has funneled millions of dollars into the river study, but also has fought to delay beginning the cleanup phase because of its estimated $130 million price tag.

While the independent study team did make remediation suggestions, “nothing is set in stone,” Rudd said on the stand.

In a brief filed before the trial, Mallinckrodt contends the river is less contaminated and recovering faster than the study indicates. It also asserts there is no evidence of unacceptable risk to human health or of significant adverse effects on wildlife caused by the contamination.

In May, concerns over elevated mercury levels found in lobsters prompted the Department of Marine Resources to close indefinitely a 7-square-mile area of the lower Penobscot River to lobster and crab fishing. The source of the mercury, the level of which is little more than what is found in canned white tuna, had been traced to the defunct HoltraChem plant, according to previously published reports.

Before the trial began Tuesday morning, a small crowd that included lobstermen and environmental activists stood outside the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building demanding Mallinckrodt end its delaying tactics and begin in earnest to clean up the site.

“It’s time for our river to be restored so that we can once again feel safe fishing and eating the lobster and other seafood in that region,” said Tim Conmee of Orrington, a Maine People’s Alliance member. “We need the corporation that has been found responsible for the pollution to be held accountable for cleaning it up.”

Rudd said the team of scientists determined that much of the mercury is now in sediments in the river that are mobile because the Penobscot is a tidal river.

“Most of the mercury is in the sediment and is moving up [the food chain] to the fish and birds through the sediments … as it comes out of the mobile pool,” he said.

The reason the study panel is recommending remediation is because it would take up to seven decades for the river to flush itself clean, but Rudd admits there is no easy solution.

“It’s been 47 years now since this mercury was added to the system and that is why it’s so hard to clean up,” said the microbiologist, who estimates he has spent 80 percent of his working hours over the last decade studying the Penobscot River.

Mitch Bernard is representing the plaintiffs and said at the end of the day that he would need another 30 minutes or so with Rudd, and would be calling Whipple as his next witness after Attorney Jeffrey Talbert, who is representing Mallinckrodt, questions Rudd.

The trial will continue Wednesday and is expected to last most of the month.

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