After two decades, Penobscot River cleanup fight to end with settlement of at least $187 million
A federal judge in Maine has approved a multimillion dollar plan for cleaning up mercury pollution in the Penobscot River estuary, bringing a two-decade legal battle to an end.
The Maine People's Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council first sued Mallinckrodt US LLC, the former owner of the now-closed HoltraChem plant in Orrington, back in 2000.
Now, under the terms of a finalized settlement agreement, Mallinckrodt US LLC will pay at least $187 million, and potentially up to $267 million, to fund a remediation and restoration plan for the Penobscot River estuary and surrounding communities.
"It's sort of a miracle that we've been here and been a part of this," said Maine People's Alliance co-director Jesse Graham, who has been involved in the case from the beginning.
"The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Maine People's Alliance has been pretty dogged in a long period of time in continuing this fight," he said. "There are times where I think corporations get away with pollution because a small community group may pay attention for a little bit of time, and [the company] can outlast them. This is one of the best examples in the country where a community group has kept up with a big corporation with very deep pockets and resulted in a victory, which will see real restoration of the Penobscot River from this pollution."
The settlement establishes a timeline and a process for setting up two independent trusts. One trust will fund and implement a plan for remediating mercury pollution in the river. The other will pay for a variety of environmental projects intended to offset the impacts of mercury contamination in affected communities.
Greenfield Environmental will oversee both trusts. It will also develop more specific cleanup plans and secure the necessary permits. The cleanup will include the creation of a clean barrier between contaminated sediment and the water and wildlife, Graham said.
"It's also going to do dredging, so really scooping the mercury out where there's a big mobile pool of mercury attached to wood waste in the Penobscot River that moves around every time the tides go in and out, so going in and getting that out, and then some of the worst mercury pollution that's right near the banks of the river in Orrington where the plant was," he said.
Once the major cleanup is complete, Greenfield will spend between 30 and 45 years monitoring mercury levels in the river sediments and wildlife, according to the finalized settlement.
Attorneys for the Maine People's Alliance believe this case may be the largest environmental settlement in Maine history. The 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.
In a statement, Mallinckrodt US LLC said it was pleased that a federal judge had approved the settlement.
“The parties reached agreement after thorough and thoughtful discussions, and the court’s approval reinforces our belief that the terms will deliver measurable benefits, mitigate risk wisely and promote the best interests of the Penobscot River and its surrounding communities," Mark Robinson, a spokesman for Mallinckrodt US LLC, said in an emailed statement. "We look forward to working with the trustee as remediation takes place. Input from the public has been an integral part of this process, and opportunities for public participation will continue as this important work proceeds."
In the finalized consent decree, federal Judge John Woodcock said the remediation actions may not reduce mercury concentrations in all species of concern, such as ducks and lobsters, to state thresholds.
But the parties all agreed that it was in their best interests to avoid continued litigation and move forward with a plan that is intended to speed up recovery of the Penobscot River.