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Judge Orders Recommendations for Cleaning up Mercury in Penobscot River

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Courtesy: State of Maine
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The former HoltraChem plant in Orrington.

ORRINGTON, Maine - A federal judge will order a team of engineers to devise options for cleaning up toxic mercury pollution in the Penobscot River stretching from the former Veazie Dam to the southern tip of Verona Island.

HoltraChem, an Orrington-based chemical company, dumped 6 to 12 metric tons of mercury into the river during the 1960's and 1970's. The Maine People's Alliance and The Natural Resources Defense Council first sued Mallinckrodt US LLC, which acquired the HoltaChem site, 14 years ago in an effort to force the clean up.
U.S. District Judge John Woodcock couldn't help but poke fun at the long, grinding nature of the case when he took the bench Wednesday morning. "Not one of you looks a year older," Woodcock said to attorneys for both sides - a nod to the last flurry of activity in this trial, last June.

Earlier rulings, in U.S. District and federal appeals courts, found that Mallinckrodt was liable for the pollution and ordered a group of scientists to study the extent of the damage.

"Those scientists found evidence of profound damage to the river," says Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who spoke at a press conference outside the federal building in Bangor. "Eels, crabs, black ducks - all have mercury limits that exceed the Maine standard for safe human consumption. A pregnant woman could not eat a single Penobscot fish in the measured range without endangering fetal health."

The study panel also found toxic levels of mercury in lobsters - a determination that coincided with a later decision, by the Maine Department of Marine Resources, to close a seven-mile stretch of the fishery at the mouth of the Penobscot.

In court Wednesday, Mallinckrodt's lawyer argued that more study of the damage to specific bird species was needed before clean-up can move forward. But an attorney for the NRDC and the Maine People's Alliance countered that additional study was no longer needed and the time to come up with clean-up options was long overdue.

Judge Woodcock agreed, noting that the state of Maine's decision to close lobster fishing at the mouth of the Penobscot was a "game changer" in the long-running court battle.

Woodcock instructed lawyers for the two sides to work together on recommendations for clean-up, ahead of his ruling, calling for a team of engineers to study remediation options, in-depth, under the guidance of the court.