SEARSPORT, Maine — On a hot, muggy morning in early July, Bob Ramsdell took a small hand rake and dug into the sandbar near the Sears Island Causeway, searching until he triumphantly pulled out a plump steamer clam.
Ramsdell, the enthusiastic chairman of the Searsport Shellfish Management Committee and a retired teacher, wasn’t digging up his dinner. He was showing off some of the areas where clams can be found near Kidder Point, close to the smokestacks and outbuildings of the GAC Chemical Corp. plant.
He said that while the flats right next to the chemical company are open for clamming, he wouldn’t personally eat clams dug there, just in case there is residual contamination from the century-old plant.
“I’ve been reading the information, and that’s enough to keep me from clamming,” he said.
The area, littered with mussel and clam shells and watched over Wednesday morning by wheeling seagulls and a pair of bald eagles, has been a recent focal point of controversy in the midcoast area.
An environmental activist group, Friends of Penobscot Bay, this winter contracted an oceanographer from St. Joseph’s College in Standish to do pH analyses of some sediment samples collected at Kidder Point.
Dr. Mark Green this week told the BDN that the acidification in the clam flats on the point is the worst he’s seen in Maine, and the activist group is loudly calling for federal agencies to do remediation.
“I was a little stunned, actually,” Green said Tuesday morning of the pH numbers from the point. “You wouldn’t find clams there. They wouldn’t survive. They would dissolve.”
But an official with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection said that the agency last fall surveyed the shoreline near the GAC Chemical Corp., and found no signs that any type of contamination is seeping into the soil or water there.
They dug through sediment, looking for discoloration or waste materials, and found no red flags.
“We didn’t find anything wrong,” Jessamine Logan, spokesperson for the DEP, said Tuesday. “We sent people who are hazardous materials specialists. They know what they’re looking for.”
Kidder Point has long been a focus of Friends of Penobscot Bay, which executive director Ron Huber has described as a ‘gadfly group’ of environmental activists.
Over the years they have been involved in many Searsport matters, including the recent fight over the proposed liquid propane gas tank and the battle over the future of Sears Island.
Huber last summer began a new call for action to remediate what he said was pollution leftover from past practices that may have left toxins leaching into the bay. He alleged that the pollution includes sulfuric acid and heavy metals.
“To us, remediating this site would be really important low-hanging fruit in dealing with ocean acidification. It’s sitting there in front of you. Easy to remediate,” he said this week. “But then the four-letter word ‘cost’ comes up.”
Huber contacted Green this winter and asked him to run tests on sediment samples, which Huber and others collected based on the scientist’s instructions. They put the samples on freezer packs and overnighted them to Green’s laboratory, according to the oceanographer.
The results of the testing he did were shocking, Green said.
Solutions with a pH of less than 7 are acidic, and solutions with a pH greater than 7 are basic. Green said he would normally expect that kind of sediment to be in the low-to-mid 7s range.
Instead, one of the sediment samples tested at 1.5. In comparison, pure water has a pH of close to 7. Pure citric acid has a pH of about 2.2.
“That’s just crazy acidic,” Green said of the Kidder Point samples, which contained very little organic matter that might change the pH one way or another. “That’s completely not natural.”
Huber reported Kidder Point to the National Response Center, the federal agency that is a clearinghouse for pollution complaints. The U.S. Coast Guard received a report from the National Response Center about Kidder Point on June 3, according to Lt. Commander Timothy Balunis, Jr., the chief of the incident management division for Coast Guard Sector Northern New England.
Balunis wrote in an email to the BDN that his agency conducted a preliminary investigation into the pollution report, reviewing material provided by Friends of Penobscot Bay as well as results from several site visits and investigations by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection over the last 15 years.
“The Coast Guard has determined to close its investigation, and defers to Maine DEP’s long-running investigation of this site,” Balunis wrote, adding that Kidder Point has never been classified as a ‘Superfund Incident’ or site, as Huber has written on his publicity materials.
The activist has said that people in his organization will go to Kidder Point every Sunday afternoon to inform visitors of the pollution issues there.
“This is a public health hazard. Let’s get it dealt with,” he wrote in June.
However, Logan said that the DEP does not believe the area is a hazard to public health. The agency has done a number of routine inspections there, finding no problems.
“The information from [Green] conflicts with what we observed in our investigation,” she said. “We will not be further looking into it.”
Jeff Nichols of the Maine Department of Marine Resources said that “without the ability to verify the quality of the samples [tested by Green], which is critical to any scientific analysis, the department can’t comment on the results of these tests.”
Nichols added that, in general, the state’s new ocean acidification commission will work to identify the actual and potential effects of coastal and ocean acidification on commercially-valuable marine species and figure out a strategy to address identified problems.
David Colter, president and CEO of GAC Chemical Corp., said in a statement issued Wednesday that the intertidal area below the plant has been studied extensively over the last 30 years, and an ongoing sampling and water quality monitoring program is being conducted in coordination with the Maine DEP.
A recent study has shown that marine life there is reproducing and growing, he said, and no remediation of the area is recommended.
“We believe in working proactively with regulatory authorities, which we have done and will continue to do,” he said. “GAC is unaware of any current reputable study which suggests or demonstrates that the intertidal area presents a current threat to human health or the environment.”
But Huber is not bothered by officials who question his study and his methods.
“Unless they come down and gather some samples, it’s just so much hot air,” he said. “Here is what we think is there. Would you please go check?”