Friends of Penobscot Bay, an activist group, is facing obstacles as it continues to call for an official investigation into the possible erosion of legacy wastes from the property of GAC Chemical Corporation in Searsport.

The group maintains that wastes from former uses of the site are running off into the shoreline sediments of Kidder Point and the adjacent mudflats.

Dr. Mark Green, an oceanography professor at St. Joseph's College in Standish, tested samples of mud FOPB members collected from the area and sent him according to his instructions, and found the samples to be unusually acidic. Green concluded in an April 9 report on the study, “Results presented here clearly demonstrate a significant anthropogenic acid source and should merit concern for the well being of local residents in contact with these sediments, recreation in the immediate area, and wildlife.”

Several attempts by FOPB to prompt official investigations have dead-ended. At the group's request The Department of Environmental Protection did a site visit and visual inspection of the property in October 2013 and found no reason to further investigate. FOPB then filed a complaint with the National Response Center of the Environmental Protection Agency. Officer Timothy Balunis of the U.S. Coast Guard base in Portland was assigned to review the DEP's documentation related to the site and materials provided by FOPB. He also concluded that there was no need for further investigation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, at the request of FOPB, is planning to do a site walk, but Kelsey O'Neil said in a phone call with The Journal July 22 that this should not be characterized as an investigation.

"We don't anticipate finding anything more than the state found," O'Neil said. "The state has been doing a lot of sampling over the years and has a relationship with GAC and with Friends of Penobscot Bay. GAC has been cooperative and compliant, and at this point there is no reason to believe that further action is necessary."

Searsport will not investigate

When FOPB member Harlan McLaughlin requested at the July 15 Searsport selectmen's meeting that Searsport "take some samples like we took, find a reputable lab to test them and then decide on what your action would be from there," board chair Aaron Fethke agreed with the Department of Marine Resource's statement to the Bangor Daily News that the study is not verifiable.

McLaughlin explained that the study is verifiable: "This is why we were so careful," he said. "In science…, other people have to be able to do what you did using what you used the way you did it. If the guy at DEP says they can’t verify [our] samples, then test your own samples."

"No that's not how it works, Harlan" Fethke responded. "If we can’t make sure your testing was accurate then I don't think the study holds water. No one can verify that you did it correctly."

Fethke confirmed the town would not be doing its own testing in a phone call with The Journal July 21. "Testing is done by the DEP and the DMR," he said. "Municipalities don't get involved in that."

Scientist defends original study

Green, who has recently been awarded his third National Science Foundation grant to continue his pioneering studies on the effects of acidification on juvenile clams and has been appointed to Maine's Ocean Acidification Commission by DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher, wrote to The Journal July 21 about how the sampling process could have affected the test results. He said the sample containers he received were completely full of mud with no head-space, meaning that there was very little oxygen available for bacteria, and that the samples had been put on ice, which made the bacteria metabolism drop to a very slow rate. But the effect of any bacteria action would be a raise in pH, not a lowering, he explained, because alkalinity is produced in the absence of oxygen during bacterial respiration.

"There is no amount of time these samples could have sat around to give you the low values that were recorded, in my opinion," he said.

Green also doesn't believe the samples were contaminated, accidentally or deliberately, because the pH changes appeared to follow a pattern, increasing away from a low, highly acidic region as one proceeds seaward. Such a pattern would be very hard to achieve through doctoring the samples.

"At the end of the day, I only received the mud samples as an overnight delivery and had no oversight of the collection," Green said. "If [DMR and the Searsport select board] dismissed them out of hand, I find that to be pretty ridiculous and not at all based on knowledge of how these samples would behave post-collection prior to my measuring them. If they dismissed them because they don't trust the original source of the samples… when they measure them again they'll see the same values generated."

Searsport Police get involved

In the meantime, the group has been going to the shore at Kidder Point each Sunday to warn the public of the potential dangers in area, but their right to do so is being challenged.

“Searsport police threatened arrest for criminal trespass if we continued to gather samples there,” FOPB president Ron Huber said in an email. "We consider the threat to arrest sediment samplers to be suggestive … of something to hide."

Searsport Police Chief Richard LaHaye said on three Sundays — June 29, July 6 and July 13 — police were called to the area by someone at GAC Chemical reporting trespassing. The first two Sundays a police officer spoke with the FOPB members at the shore, gathered information about who was there and why, and made them aware of the laws against trespassing. The police took no action at that time, he said. The third Sunday, police observed someone with a fishing pole on the shore.

“I'm aware of the fishing and fowling laws on shoreline property that borders private property, and the individual did have a fishing pole so we did not address that individual,” LeHaye said.

LeHaye indicated that he was waiting to find out if the GAC deed extends to the low water mark or to the high water mark, which will make a difference as to how the trespassing laws are enforced.

“If people don't have a right to be there, then they shouldn't be there,” he said.

The Journal consulted quitclaim deed 01902 (Book 1440, page 294), of March 8, 1994, in which Delta Chemical granted General Alum New England Corp two parcels of land The deed indicates the boundary is at the low tide line. The first parcel's shoreline boundary is described as: “Thence continuing on the same course to the low water line of [Stockton] Harbor; thence in a generally southwesterly direction following said mean low water line a distance of two thousand thirty (2,030) feet more or less” to the boundary of Parcel 2. Parcel 2's shoreline boundary is described as “continuing on the same course to the mean low water line of [Stockton] Harbor; thence … following the mean low water line of said Harbor, to a point at a corner of Parcel 1…”

Observations from above

On July 17, FOPB’s Olivia Gomes and Robert Huber, with the help of Project LightHawk, a non-profit which donates flights to groups engaged in conservation projects, took aerial photos of the GAC Chemical plant, the shoreline and the cove. Their photographs showed a red discoloration of sediment that appeared to be washing out from shore.

FOPB will be passing on their photos and video to the EPA as it conducts its asessment, which Kelsey O'Neil said in an email to Ron Huber includes reviewing data collected by the state and FOPB, meeting with the parties and visiting the site to observe current conditions.

"No sampling is planned at this first site visit,” O’Neil wrote in the email.