A sign marks an access point to the Howard L. Mendall Wildlife Management Area on the western shore of the Penobscot River on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

A decades-long legal battle over cleaning up mercury pollution in the Penobscot River will come closer to a resolution following a series of hearings in October over a proposed settlement that could lead to a $267 million cleanup.

Three days of hearings are scheduled for U.S. District Court in Bangor in early October over a settlement agreement that would have the onetime owner of a shuttered chemical plant in Orrington spend between $187 million and $267 million to clean up mercury contamination in the Penobscot River.

In March, the Maine People’s Alliance and Natural Resources Defense Council arrived at the settlement with Mallinckrodt US LLC, which owned the former HoltraChem chemical plant between 1967 and 1982. 

A judge has to approve the settlement before it can take effect. A decision could come soon after the parties in the settlement file post-hearing briefs, said Associate Director Kate Kiely of Natural Resources Defense Council. They have 30 days until after the hearing to file.

The hearings will take place on Oct. 1, 4 and 5, and members of the public will have the chance to participate in the Oct. 5 session at the Margaret Chase Smith Courthouse on Harlow Street in Bangor. Those interested in submitting written comments or signing up to testify at the hearing can sign up online, at penobscotrivermediation.com.

Under the settlement terms, Mallinckrodt US LLC would deposit $187 million into a trust over the next seven years to pay for the cleanup. The company could end up contributing up to $80 million more if needed for the cleanup.

The 2000 court case was filed the same year HoltraChem filed for bankruptcy and shut down. It’s the oldest pending court case in federal court in Maine.

In 2015, U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock ruled that Mallinckrodt 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 clean up 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.

As part of the settlement all three parties agreed to let an independent custodian, Greenfield Environmental Trusts, direct the clean-up effort, which includes dredging up mercury deposits and covering contaminated sediment with clean sediment.

The settlement would be the largest ecosystem-wide cleanup ever to be forced by a citizen lawsuit, said Mike Tipping, Maine People’s Alliance’s communications director. 

“It’s an incredible historic moment,” he said. “It certainly sends a message that corporate polluters do eventually have to pay for what they do to the environment that we all share.”

In March, Mallinckrodt released a statement saying it was looking forward to the hearing on the settlement.

“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,” the company said at the time.

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.