During the current recession, the historical question of whether we can have a healthy economy and still protect the environment has re-emerged. There is no doubt that during our nation’s industrial past we often saw it as an “either-or” choice, rather than an opportunity to achieve both. In hindsight, that was clearly an incorrect view.
Now, we are again faced with finding the right balance on a number of environmental issues. On the national level, for example, we hope we can address climate change without hindering our country’s competitive position. At the state level, there is optimism that new wind power facilities will benefit both our economy and the environment. Unfortunately, some of Maine’s environmental issues continue to be byproducts of past industrial practices.
The residents of Orrington face one of these legacy issues at the former HoltraChem site. Specifically, whether the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is correct to insist that Mallinckrodt excavate several hundred thousand tons of landfill soil and transport it to Canada, or agree to a different approach that could provide faster and greater overall benefits for the community. Mallinckrodt is the only remaining company with any connection to the site.
Over my 30 year career as an environmental consultant and conservationist, I have seen both good and bad decisions regarding contaminated sites when success is measured by total community benefit. At many sites, the environmental risk was quickly and effectively addressed and the land promptly put back into productive use through the cooperative efforts of industry and government. Other sites have languished for years, even decades, as one party or the other took an uncompromising stand on the remedy. In other similar cases, the parties tried to implement a difficult time-consuming remedy, while neither the environment nor the local economy benefited.
Right now, the HoltraChem site appears to be on the wrong track. There is an opportunity to do better.
Much has already been accomplished at the HoltraChem site. Mallinckrodt has removed all contaminated buildings and is currently treating groundwater and surface water at the site. The company has agreed to remove unused buildings, contaminated soil beneath former building foundations and contaminated sediments in the Southern Cove. Mallinckrodt has also agreed to build a groundwater capture and treatment system to prevent contamination of groundwater discharging into the Penobscot River.
One of the key remaining issues is what to do about the five landfills on the property that have been in place for more than 20 years. DEP has taken the position that all five need to be removed. Mallinckrodt contends that the groundwater data do not support such an extreme approach for all of the landfills. In addition, the com-pany also points out that excavating soil that is now contained could expose the community to needless environmental risk. Given the current positions of the parties, there appear to be three basic scenarios going forward:
— Mallinckrodt attempts to implement DEP’s chosen remedy. By its nature, the remedy is difficult, time- consuming and could cause more harm than good. It is estimated, for example, that more than 30,000 truck trips carrying mercury-contaminated soil will be required over local roads. Just this aspect of DEP’s approach will take many years and cost millions of dollars. In the meantime, there can be no economic development on one of the only industrial zoned parcels of land in Orrington.
— DEP and Mallinckrodt continue to disagree over the landfill remedy. Any action on the landfills will be delayed, which also delays the cleanup of other portions of the site. As in the first scenario, there will be no economic benefit for some time and significant amounts of time and money will be spent litigating instead of miti-gating.
— DEP and Mallinckrodt agree on a landfill remedy that can be implemented quickly and monitored for effectiveness. The alternative might include removal of some landfill soils, capping and increased capture of groundwater. Numerous landfills across the country have been effectively addressed without the need for total removal of all materials. If the parties opt for this approach, then most of the site can be put back into productive use sooner, perhaps with help from Mallinckrodt and economic stimulus funds.
In my experience, the current proposed remedy is a recipe for conflict that can be time-consuming and costly for the parties and the community as a whole. Instead of continuing to argue over whether Mallinckrodt should remove all five landfills, isn’t it time to discuss options that strike the right balance? I believe it should be about protecting the environment and supporting the community’s local economy as quickly as possible.
John Claussen is president and founder of Windjammer Consulting based in Camden and a member of the board of directors for the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C.