The Maine Department of Environmental Protection issued Sprague Energy a Notice of Violation Jan. 15, alleging the company failed to comply with the state’s water pollution act after spilling two bales of plastic debris into the ocean while unloading a ship at Mack Point. The company could face a fine of up to $10,000, and may be required to take additional corrective action.

Pamela Parker, water enforcement manager for Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said the notice is required by Maine law to be sent to parties the department believes are responsible for violations of the state’s laws, prior to initiating civil enforcement actions.

“It’s an agreement,” she said, and added that a financial penalty and further corrective measures were likely. “They did not have a permit to discharge” into the water of Penobscot Bay.

In the violation notice, DEP says Sprague personnel were operating the crane Dec. 2, 2020, on the M/V Sider London offloading bales of solid recovered fuel destined for incineration at Penobscot Energy Recovery Co.

Two 42-inch-by-42-inch-by-72-inch bales, each weighing about 2,500 pounds, were dropped. One broke apart after hitting the pier, the notice says, and sank immediately. The other bale fell directly into the water and remained intact as it slowly sank within five to 10 minutes.

Twenty-one days later, Sprague located the intact bale of plastic waste, which was discovered by sonar and brought on land at Mack Point.

Sprague had previously reported the packaging wrap holding the plastic material together had eroded during transport. When The Republican Journal asked Parker why the captain of the ship was not also cited, since the handling of the material was probably a contributing factor, she said, “I can’t speak to that.”

“Sprague staff was operating the crane and has taken responsibility,” Parker said.

According to the timeline provided in the DEP notice, the spill occurred Dec. 2; DEP received a complaint regarding plastic in the water and on the shore of Sears Island Dec. 8; after DEP sent response staff to investigate, Sprague reported the Dec. 2 incident regarding the two lost plastic bales Dec. 9; and DEP staff "strongly encouraged Sprague to pursue additional search methods to determine the disposition of the second bale" Dec. 15.

When asked why Sprague did not report the spill right away, Parker said company employees did not know they had to report it, and in hindsight, now know they probably should have.

“To my knowledge,” she said, “there is no necessary reporting requirement for people who discharge illegally if the material is not hazardous.”

Once a facility is permitted and is discharging in relation to its permit, she said, there is a requirement to report.

“Would it have been a good idea to report it immediately? Absolutely,” she said.

The Journal left a message for Jason Littlefield, Sprague’s director of environmental affairs, who is named in the violation notice. Shana Hoch, Sprague’s managing director of marketing, replied, saying that in this case, the shipment was a trial run and that during transit some of the cargo was damaged.

“…that damage was realized when the cargo was lifted from the ship to the dock,” Hoch said.

“Should further shipments be made,” she said, “Sprague will be requiring air bag bladders between the stack to prevent damage during transit.”

When asked why it took seven days for the spill to be reported to Maine DEP, Hoch did not respond.

Parker said fines depend on many circumstances, but can range from $100 to $10,000 a day per violation. As far as corrective measures go, she said, DEP is trying to figure that out as well.

"We are working with folks who are experts in plastic remediation and trying to determine if additional cleanup is needed or not," she said.

According to the violation notice, Sprague is to develop a standard operating procedure by March 1 to prevent any type of cargo from being lost overboard or spilled in the future. After submission, DEP will review the procedure.