On Dec. 2, dock workers at the Mack Point cargo facility in Searsport spilled about 5,000 pounds of plastic waste into Penobscot Bay. It had arrived in a large shipment from Northern Ireland, bound for a waste-to-energy incinerator in Orrington.
The spill was kept under wraps until six days later, when plastic started washing up on the beaches of nearby Sears Island.
On a chilly day on upper Penobscot Bay, a crew of volunteers and a small team of professional cleanup workers spread out on the sandy beach on Sears Island, picking up trash.
“What’s washing up are little tiny chunks of plastic that seem to be crushed with some sort of fiber, like a cotton fiber,” said Sally Brophy of Belfast, a volunteer with Upstream Watch, a local environmental group. “So there are these chunks of crushed cotton, and little, tiny, most of it, it looks like little candy wrappers.”
The cleanup started after a local resident, walking on Sears Island on Dec. 8, noticed clumps of plastic along the shore. He alerted local journalist Ethan Andrews, who posted photos on Facebook
“The first we knew of the spill was actually the indication from Facebook. That somebody found the material on the beach,” said Henry Lang, general manager of the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. in Orrington. “We were all looking at it horrified, going, ‘That’s SRF.’”
SRF stands for solid-recovered fuel, and Lang’s facility had just received a big shipment of it from a company called Re-Gen Waste in the United Kingdom. It had been offloaded at Mack Point, the port just opposite Sears Island.
“It was not a happy piece of information, and it certainly had us very concerned,” Lang said.
He said the material is mostly fine plastic film, a byproduct of recycling, mixed with bits of cotton and linen. The shipment of 100 metric tons arrived in more than 7,000 plastic-wrapped bales. He’d received a smaller trial run last year, and said it burned well.
On the afternoon of Dec. 2, as the plastic was being hoisted from a ship’s cargo hold to trucks for shipping to PERC, port workers dropped two large bales into Penobscot Bay. Each weighed about 2,500 pounds.
Sprague Operating Resources, which manages the Mack Point terminal under contract to the state of Maine, declined to go on tape, but a spokesperson said the spilled bales quickly dropped out of sight, and conditions were unsafe for divers to retrieve them. When divers did check the site later, they found no evidence of the plastic.
Sprague did not alert Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection.
The DEP says it learned about the spill six days later, on Dec. 8, through a phone call from a concerned citizen.
Sprague has hired a crew of cleanup contractors. But on Thursday, the half-dozen contractors were far outnumbered by volunteers mustered by Upstream Watch and Friends of Sears Island.
“Do we want to be taking foreign waste to turn into energy that we subsidize in the state? That’s a question we really have to ask.” said state Rep. Paige Zeigler, a Democrat from Montville who was among those picking tiny pieces of plastic from the rockweed.
Zeigler serves on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, and once introduced a bill to ban the use of polystyrene food containers.
“The committee that I’ve been on, we’ve been dealing with solid waste for the last two sessions in particular. We really have to look at this, we don’t want the state to be a dumping ground, we want our environment to be protected,” he said.
To Brophy the entire situation seemed avoidable.
“There’s a solution every way down the chain for this. Don’t wrap every little tiny thing in plastic, and don’t bale it up and put it on a ship and use fossil fuels to ship it across the ocean,” she said with a laugh. “It’s crazy.”
But for the companies involved, it’s about cost. It’s far more expensive for Re-Gen to landfill waste in the United Kingdom than to ship it to Maine and pay PERC a fee of roughly $77 a ton to take it.
Lang said PERC has already begun burning the waste. DEP, meanwhile, is investigating Sprague’s response to the spill.