The onetime owner of a shuttered chemical plant in Orrington would spend between $187 million and $267 million to clean up mercury contamination in the Penobscot River estuary under the terms of a settlement filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor.
The settlement, if approved by a judge, would bring to an end a 21-year legal battle over pollution in the Penobscot River that took place while HoltraChem Manufacturing operated on its banks from 1967 to 2000. The court case, brought by the Maine People’s Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2000, is the oldest pending court case in federal court in Maine.
The cleanup work described in the settlement would include removing contaminated sediment from the river, capping some contaminated sediments with clean sediments, other beneficial environmental projects, and long-term monitoring, according to the settlement.
HoltraChem owner Mallinckrodt US LLC will deposit $187 million into a trust over the next seven years to pay for the cleanup, the specifics of which haven’t been decided. The company could end up contributing up to $80 million more.
The 2000 court case was filed the same year HoltraChem filed for bankruptcy and shut down.
In 2015, U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock ruled that Mallinckrodt, which owned the plant from 1967 to 1982, was legally responsible for the river’s cleanup. The company already has spent millions to clean up the site itself and $30 million on court-ordered studies on the impact the mercury deposits have had on the river over time.
A study submitted to the judge in 2018 estimated it would cost between $246 million and $333 million to remediate the pollution. A previous court-ordered scientific study found that 6 to 12 tons of mercury were discharged from HoltraChem into the Penobscot River between 1967 and the early 1970s.
Mallinckrodt rejected the 2018 study as too expensive. The case was set for trial in January 2020, but the parties agreed to try to settle the matter rather than prolong what already had been a lengthy and expensive litigation.
Parties on both sides praised the settlement in statements released late Friday, when the settlement proposal was filed.
“If the court approves the proposed consent decree and settlement, it will be a great outcome for the health of the Penobscot River and the people who live along it,” said Jesse Graham, co-director of the Maine People’s Alliance. “We look forward to participating in whatever process the court establishes to determine whether to approve this settlement and will continue to advocate for cleaning up the river.”
Nancy Marks, senior litigation counsel for the Natural Resource Defense Council, called the proposed settlement “a major milestone in the fight to clean up toxic mercury pollution.”
“If approved by the court, this settlement will turn the page on more than two decades of litigation and start a new chapter of cooperative work to accelerate the recovery of the Penobscot River estuary,” she said.
Mallinckrodt, through its attorneys, said that it was looking forward to a public hearing on the settlement and the opportunity to show that it is fair and reasonable and serves the public interest, the legal standard for the judge approving it.
“The parties, after thorough and thoughtful settlement discussions, have reached equitable settlement agreement terms,” the company said. “We believe that these terms will deliver measurable benefits, mitigate risk wisely and promote a healthy, vibrant future for the Penobscot River and its surrounding communities.”
Going forward, an independent trustee, Boston-based Greenfield Environmental Trust Group, will determine and direct cleanup activities, which would require local, state and federal permitting.
The settlement calls for:
— At least $50 million to be spent on capping mercury-contaminated sediment with clean sediment.
— At least $70 million for removing contaminated sediment and wood waste that have been trapped in the estuary by tides and currents.
— $30 million for cleaning in the region that includes the Orland River and the channel east of Verona Island.
— $20 million for future projects that benefit the environment in communities affected by the mercury contamination.
— $10 million to monitor mercury levels and water and wildlife in the area for 30 to 45 years.
Leaving the accumulated mercury as it is would mean waiting several more decades for the pollution levels in the river and adjacent waterbodies to decrease enough to be considered safe.
The pollution has led the state multiple times over the years to issue warnings to hunters and lobstermen about potential mercury contamination.
The build-up of mercury in Mendell Marsh — a 668-acre tidal wetland that branches off the west bank of the Penobscot River between Frankfort and Prospect — prompted the state in 2011 to issue a health advisory about eating waterfowl hunted along the river between Orrington and Verona Island.
Three years later, state fisheries officials banned the harvest of lobster and crab between Orrington and Fort Point in Stockton Springs. In 2016, the ban was extended farther south, to the southern tip of Cape Jellison on the western side of the river and to Perkins Point in Castine on the eastern side.