Mercury Contamination in the Penobscot River and Bay: a report from an informational meeting

By Veronica Garvey Magnan | May 29, 2014

It was the Natural Resources Defense Council NRDC and the Maine Peoples Alliance MPA that recognized the dumping of mercury into the Penobscot River and its subsequent dispersal up and down the river by time and tide. They knew something must be done while the actual owner of the former HoltraChem Corporation is still involved in the process. Successful litigation would compel the Mallinckrodt Corporation, present owner of the former HoltraChem Corporation, to clean up the Penobscot River and Bay of the mercury which it dumped into the river for years and years.

A short detour to any website that discusses the toxicity of mercury will provide you with a very good reason to support this litigation. Mercury is not just a contaminant, it is a lethal metal that crosses into the body, and even very small amounts can prove a dangerous dose. The effects, over time, can be devastating.

A comprehensive study with numerous river samples was done by court order. A color coded map of the dissemination of the mercury in the Penobscot River below Bangor was developed. When I saw it, I was appalled. The map shows that the waters of this mighty river had done their job of carrying the substances, in this case the mercury, well up the river to the first cataract in Bangor and down the bay to the northern end of Islesboro. Unfortunately, mercury is not flotsam that will be dispersed and eventually disintegrate into the marine environment. It has pooled and really contaminated the Frankfort marsh, the east side of Verona Island and the Narramissic River up to the dam in Orland. Besides a large area of general contamination, there are other areas along the riverway with high levels too.

What are the consequences of doing nothing? Well, we already have a closure of crab and lobster fishing from an imaginary line between Castine and Fort Point in Stockton Springs that was put in place by the Maine Department of Marine Resources (MDMR) as a response to the information being used for the lawsuit. I know several lobster fishermen from Stockton Springs and Verona Island who are deeply impacted. The contamination also precludes any other kind of aquaculture in the upper bay and river. That means a loss of potential jobs in this area. The river will still be eligible for deep water energy turbines, since they are not organic. But we do not know how the contamination has impacted the anadromous fish who pass upriver to spawn or the catadromous that go back to the sea to spawn. Where are our salmon, alewives, herring, blues and saltwater bass that were once so abundant?

Could a cleanup of the river be possible? Well, the Chesapeake Bay which was once extremely polluted is still under a cleanup that started in 1967. The crab and fishing industry is thriving in reclaimed areas. There is some cleanup left to do, but it is working. The Hudson River was seriously polluted and thanks to the efforts of people like Pete Seeger, who was willing to bring the damaged river to the attention of millions of people, the Hudson is in much better condition above NYC and the seagoing fish are back in greater numbers.

A thorough decontamination of the Penobscot River in the stricken areas might take years to clean up to a reasonable, non-toxic, level. The river has been flowing for centuries. A few dozen years will seem but a drop in its lifespan. This lawsuit, if successful, will allow for the restoration of the river in the lifetime of our children, and not place the eventual cleanup cost of the river on our taxpayers in Maine or on our federal tax dollars.

At the forum, Phil Bailey from the Maine People’s Alliance (MPA) discussed the history of the MPA and NRDC litigation efforts to have Mallinkrodt repair the damage done by their company over the years they were in operation here. Nancy Galland of Stockton Springs, who has been a plaintiff since the beginning of the lawsuit, relayed her testimony and determination to see this project and the cleanup of the river to the end.

The court date is set for Tuesday, June 3. This lawsuit has been going on for years and now with the evidence in hand, the postponements by Mallinkrodt are simply delaying the much needed cleanup. It is time for the company to take responsibility for their toxic mess and prepare action plans to clean up our beautiful river for us, our children and grandchildren, our communities and the wildlife in and along the river. The MPA is hoping that concerned folks will find a way to come to the courthouse on the opening day of the trial June 3 and show community support for the litigants and let Mallinkrodt understand that we Mainers we are deeply concerned and will not give up.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.