Time to Clean Up the Penobscot River

After decades of working to ensure that corporate polluter Mallinckrodt LLC pay to clean up the highly-toxic mercury the company dumped into the Penobscot River from the now-closed HoltraChem plant in Orrington, MPA will return to court on June 3rd for one of the most important court decisions in this case.

Despite MPA’s work to force Mallinckrodt to pay for the cost of cleaning up the mercury pollution they caused on the Penobscot River, the company has used every delay tactic and legal strategy imaginable to attempt to get off the hook. On Feb 18, 2014 Maine’s Department of Marine Resources announced the immediate closure of the Fort Point-area lobster fishery because of high levels of toxic mercury contamination found in surrounding parts of the Penobscot River and its local marine life. The contamination poses a threat to one of Maine’s most important fisheries and will impact peoples’ lives and livelihoods if there is no remediation. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the need to clean up the worst mercury hotspots and extensive downriver mercury contamination due to the HoltraChem plant’s pollution, Mallinckrodt continues to spend millions of dollars on lawyers and consultants to skirt their responsibility, while fishermen, local residents, and the general public are deprived full use of a magnificent river.


Background: MPA Has Been Working to Clean up the Penobscot for Decades, But Corporate Polluter Mallinckrodt Has Fought Us Every Step of the Way…

More than 26 years ago, MPA identified the now-closed HoltraChem plant as one of the most dangerous industrial sites in Maine. The plant produced chlorine, caustic soda and other products, primarily for the paper industry. It used a dirty, outdated process that relied on tons of mercury.

After many months of attempting to persuade the Maine DEP to act, in 1999 MPA teamed up with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a national environmental organization with skilled lawyers and scientists, to demand that the DEP order plant owners to investigate the mercury pollution of the Penobscot River. The DEP refused to take action and MPA and NRDC sued the current and past plant owners in April 2000 using a citizen suit provision under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
The Court found that “methylmercury downriver of the plant, resulting, in part, from Mallinckrodt’s actions at the plant site, may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health and the environment.” Judge Gene Carter ordered Mallinckrodt to pay for an independent scientific study and, to ensure the integrity of the study, a three-person study panel was appointed to oversee it. The study panel found that HoltraChem discharged 6-12 metric tons of mercury into the Penobscot River and this is a staggering amount. Mercury dumped by the plant has resulted in surface sediments with levels 10-20 times higher than regional background levels.

Elevated mercury levels are found extending from Orrington into Penobscot Bay as far as Vinalhaven. Mercury is the only metal known to biomagnify, which means that it accumulates in animals that are higher up in the food chain. Mercury affects reproduction, the kidneys, and the immune system. It is classified as a developmental neurotoxicant that causes harm to the human central nervous system and is extremely toxic to the developing brain.

The trial starts on June 3rd

MPA’s legal team is diligently preparing for the trial scheduled to begin June 3 in Bangor and which could last until June 27. MPA will argue in court that the dangers to human health and the environment and demand the pursuit of active remediation of the river, as scientists have recommended, and that Mallinckrodt should pay the cost.

While the Bangor court considers downriver clean-up, we recently won a State Supreme Court decision about whether the DEP order requiring Mallinckrodt to remove landfill #2 from the HoltraChem site (and finally begin a full cleanup of the site) will stand. Pollutants from the site have already been found to be leaking into local groundwater. MPA will monitor the cleanup and we’re pleased with the court’s decision.

MPA has fought for a clean river for 26 years and with your help we won’t quit. Contact Penobscot Valley Chapter organizer Amelia Mitter-Burke at amelia@mainepeoplesalliance.org or 990-0672 to learn how you can get involved.