June 01, 2020
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Speed Versus Certainty

After years of legal wrangling, it is understandable that the town of Orrington is eager to get a former chemical plant cleaned up so it has the potential to redevelop the site. But town and state officials should not opt for what appears to be the quicker route if there are no guarantees that the litigation will end or that the cleanup will be sufficient.

The HoltraChem plant made chemicals, primarily for paper companies, using mercury. Some mercury-contaminated soil has been removed from the long-closed facility, but now state regulators must decide what to do with the soil contained in the plant’s five landfills.

The Department of Environmental Protection has proposed that all the landfills — containing 360,000 tons of contaminated soils — be removed from the former HoltraChem plant on the banks of the Penobscot River in Orrington. A former corporate owner of the facility, Mallinckrodt Inc., argues that removing about 73,000 tons of soil and leaving four of the five outdated landfills in place would speed the redevelopment process.

It also will save Mallinckrodt, which owned the plant from 1967 to 1982, a lot of money. The DEP plan would cost the company between $200 million and $250 million, according to the agency. Its plan would cost between $95 million and $100 million, according to a Mallinckrodt spokeswoman. The company has already spent about $40 million removing buildings and some contaminated soil.

A brochure distributed to local residents by Mallinckrodt says the intensive cleanup would “take up to 12 years to implement (after appeals, planning and permits).”

The Board of Environmental Protection, which recently heard two weeks of testimony, will soon decide which plan to pursue.

The Orrington Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to support the Mallinckrodt proposal. “One of our key concerns is that the cleanup of the site has yet to begin in earnest, and it’s been 10 years,” Town Manager Paul White said during the public hearings. “It seems to be plainly understood by everyone involved in this matter that if the commissioner’s order is imposed on Mallinckrodt, there will be further litigation … that would result in a further delay of three to five years with nothing being done.”

This concern is valid, but the town must be sure it is ready to trade a full cleanup of the site, which would make it more attractive for redevelopment, for a less thorough one where problems might not be known for decades and where the town would have to pay to fix those problems. It also must understand that delays because of appeals, which the company mentioned in its brochures, are likely no matter which cleanup plan is chosen.

Mallinckrodt has essentially fought state regulators at every juncture, even when the state pursued cleanup remedies supported by the company. The company long fought doing a study on removing mercury from the Penobscot River despite a court order to do it. The study now is ongoing.

It would be a disservice to residents of Orrington and nearby communities if, after years of waiting, it is left with a site that is still contaminated, making its reuse unlikely while posing an environmental threat. This is an outcome the Board of Environmental Protection must avoid.

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