In this Dec. 2020 file photo, volunteers worked to pick up some of the 5,000 or so pounds of shredded plastic trash from Northern Ireland that is washing up on the shore of Sears Island. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

Last month, workers at the port of Mack Point spilled more than two tons of plastic into Penobscot Bay, sending trash onto the shore of nearby Sears Island. The spill raised questions about procedures at the port, and a recent notice of violation from Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection shows the incident was not reported for a week.

The spill happened as compressed bales of shredded plastic from Northern Ireland were being unloaded from a ship for delivery to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co., a waste-to-energy incinerator in Orrington.

Two large bales, each weighing about 2,500 pounds, went into the water. According to DEP, the lifting straps on the bales slipped as they were being hoisted to shore.

“One bale broke open after hitting the pier infrastructure, fell into the water, and sank immediately,” according to the DEP notice. “The other bale fell directly into the water between the pier and the ship, remained intact and slowly sank over the period of 5-10 minutes.”

Sprague Operating Resources, which manages the terminal for the state of Maine, didn’t report the Dec. 2 spill. It did tell staff to monitor the shore for any debris that might wash up.

Six days later, the DEP got involved after receiving a complaint about plastic washing up on Sears Island, just opposite the port. DEP knew that Sprague had received a shipment of the plastic product, which is known as solid-recovered fuel, or SRF.

“Suspecting that the material had come from the terminal, DEP advised Sprague to inspect the shorelines and clean up any material,” according to the DEP notice. “Sprague did not report the lost cargo during that communication.”

It wasn’t until DEP staff visited the site the next day, Dec. 9, that Sprague finally mentioned the spill.

Sprague then contracted a crew to gather the waste from Sears Island, and many local volunteers helped with the cleanup.

On Dec. 21, Sprague used a vessel with side-scan sonar to search the cove northeast of the pier. It located the intact bale, which a team of divers recovered two days later.

And in early January, DEP authorized Sprague to suspend cleanup efforts, but continue weekly inspections of the Sears Island causeway and shore.

DEP cited Sprague for discharging a pollutant to the waters of the state. As corrective actions, it is requesting that Sprague develop standard operating procedures to avoid this type of spill in the future, and to handle such a spill if it occurs.

“The nature and circumstances surrounding the violations discovered has led DEP to conclude that final resolution of this matter should include monetary penalties as part of a civil penalty action,” DEP wrote.

Meanwhile, little pieces of shredded plastic can still be found in the rockweed on Sears Island.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.