An unknown amount of plastic debris from a Maltese cargo ship spilled into Penobscot Bay in late November, and shreds of the loose material have been washing ashore on Sears Island this week.

Approximately 10,000 metric tons of a plastic mixture arrived from Northern Ireland aboard the Malta-registered 447-foot cargo ship MV Sider London Nov. 28, on its way to Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. in Orrington. Sprague Energy officials said the material was later transported by truck from Searsport to PERC to be used as a back-up fuel source for its waste-to-energy turbines.

Shana Hoch, managing director of marketing and customer experience at Sprague, said when the bales were lifted off the ship, some bales broke away because the packaging wrap holding the material together eroded during transport. Of 8,000 bales lifted off the ship, she said, two fell into the water and sank.

“The tides pulled the packaging apart further, releasing the materials,” Hoch said. “We immediately began cleanup efforts.”

Sprague has a working relationship with Clean Harbors, Hoch said, which is managing the cleanup effort that began as soon as debris was sighted Tuesday, Dec. 8. Hoch said crews worked through the day Wednesday and continued Thursday.

"We are only aware of debris on Sears Island," she said, adding that they are focusing cleanup efforts in that area, but will continue to monitor the bay.

“This was a trial run,” Hoch said. Sprague plans to mandate airbag bladders between stacks to prevent damage during transit if further shipments are made, she added.

Henry Lang, general manager at PERC, said after his facility ran out of fuel to power two huge boilers that make electricity at the plant last spring, it was seeking to store solid recovered fuel in case of another shortage.

In response to advocacy groups' concerns about the need to purchase plastics from overseas, Lang said the material is not the main supply of fuel for the facility, but rather a backup plan in the event of an emergency.

“We can’t have the facility run out of fuel and freeze up,” he said. “We needed an edge to make sure we didn’t run out.”

The fuel PERC uses to power the incinerators is municipal solid waste, Lang said, which when burned, produces steam that powers turbines to produce electricity. The power is then put into the grid, he said. At full load, the plant can produce 22 megawatts.

The shipment coming from the Northern Ireland facility was made up of 85% plastic, with linen and paper accounting for the rest, according to Lang. “This is the first time we have moved this amount of material,” he said. In December 2019 PERC received 25-30 tons, but that shipment was enclosed in containers, which he said was not feasible for the 10,000 metric tons of material received recently.

PERC did not have any employees unloading the material, Lang said, so he did not have firsthand knowledge of what happened. He first became aware of the spill via Facebook, when he read people’s posts about debris washing up on the island.

Lang said it was disappointing “when we thought it went so well to find out it is washing up on Sears Island. It’s kind of appalling.”

The Republican Journal spoke Thursday with volunteers from Vermont and Massachusetts as well as Stockton Springs and Bar Harbor, who all came to join in the cleanup effort on the shores of Sears Island.

While sifting through seaweed, state Rep. S. Paige Zeigler of Montville, D-Dist. 96, said he had encouraged people to join in the cleanup effort, then decided he needed to be there as well.

Sprague Terminal Manager Bill Littlefield, who was also at Sears Island Thursday, said there was only minimal debris left, but his crew, along with the Clean Harbors team, would be there until it was all cleaned up. Because the weather was favorable, Littlefield said, a diver was dispatched Thursday to see if there is anything below the surface. “We’re doing what we can.”

Searsport Town Manager James Gillway said he talked to Re-Gen, the Irish waste management company that shipped the bales of plastic, as well as to Lang and officials at Sprague, and felt all parties involved reacted quickly.

Maine Ocean School students were planning to do a “final sweep of the beach” on Friday, Gillway said. “We see it as a great community project. They are looking forward to being part of the solution.”

Amy Grant of Upstream Watch, an advocacy group caring for Midcoast waters, said many members were looking for ways to help but were hesitant in light of COVID-19. This is a good opportunity, being outside and spread apart, to do so in a safe manner, she noted, and added that Sprague seems to be really committed to the cleanup.

Ron Huber, executive director of Friends of Penobscot Bay, another group working for the betterment of the bay, said he was at Sears Island Wednesday when the Clean Harbors crew was picking through all the small bits on the beach.

“The high tide watermark has a big mix of plastic,” he said.

Huber said it is "unimaginable" that Maine is importing waste from another country.

"PERC's waste ash goes to out Casella's managed state landfill. But neither PERC (incinerator) nor Casella (landfill) receive enough waste from Mainers to make their operations profitable.

"Instead of downsizing those operations, however, they instead have gotten permission to import waste. But that is for the betterment of the private waste companies, not benefiting Mainers."

Acting Deputy Commissioner of DEP David Madore said his agency was made aware of the situation Dec. 2 by a concerned citizen.

Two bales of shredded waste plastic were noted as being discharged into the ocean during unloading because of high wind conditions and one bale was reported to have broken apart and sunk. The bales, he said, were roughly 43 inches by 62 inches, with some reportedly smaller.

"Our first priority is to protect the environment and ensure a prompt and thorough cleanup of the area," Madore said. "The Maine DEP’s investigation into the matter and any subsequent corrective actions is ongoing."

Editor's note: Reporter Fran Gonzalez was interviewed Tuesday, Dec. 16, by BBC Radio in Northern Ireland about this story. Click below to hear the interview.