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Federal judge signals support for Mallinckrodt settlement agreement

Along the Penobscot River in Orono, Maine in 2009.
Sarah Skiold-Hanlin
Along the Penobscot River in Orono, Maine in 2009.

A federal judge in Maine has given conditional approval to a consent decree in the case brought by environmental groups against the former owners of a chemical plant in Orrington, bringing a decades-long legal battle over mercury pollution in the Penobscot River closer to an end.

U.S. District Judge John Woodcock has approved the terms of the consent decree brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Maine People's Alliance and Mallinckrodt.

Once finalized, the agreement would force Mallinckrodt to provide at least $187 million for clean-up efforts on the Penobscot River, and up to $267 million under certain conditions.

The Maine People's Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council first sued Mallinckrodt, the former owner of the now-closed HoltraChem plant, back in 2000.

The case could result in one of the largest environmental settlements in Maine history. The proposed settlement agreement was the result of two bench trials, three phases of scientific reviews and a separate review from an independent engineering firm that recommended a remediation plan for the Penobscot River.

That plan ultimately informed the terms of the consent decree that the three parties filed last year in a bid to bring the decades-long legal battle to a close.

"The settlement will fund extensive work to accelerate the recovery of the Penobscot Estuary," Woodcock wrote in the order, dated Aug. 4. "The court concludes that the remedies in the proposed consent decree are reasonable, adequate and consistent with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act’s purpose of mitigating imminent and substantial endangerment."

A spokesperson for the Maine People's Alliance says the plaintiffs aren't commenting until the agreement is finalized and signed by the judge.

“We are gratified that the court has provisionally approved the settlement," the Maine People's Alliance said in a statement. "This will be great for the river and the people that live in this region. We hope that this will be finalized soon and the cleanup can begin."

The judge instructed the parties to include more details in a final agreement about how they'll solicit feedback from local residents about the cleanup efforts and conduct an annual independent audit. And he denied Mallinckroft's request for an order barring any future claims.

The parties are expected to meet in the coming weeks to discuss the next steps.