AUGUSTA — Maine Board of Environmental Protection upheld a consent agreement fining Sprague Operating Resources $17,800 for spilling approximately 2,500 pounds of shredded plastic into Penobscot Bay last December.

The violation occurred while Sprague personnel were operating a crane at Mack Point terminal on the M/V Sider London, offloading bales made up of 80% shredded plastic, along with linen and paper. The bales were to be used as backup fuel for Penobscot Energy Recovery Co.’s waste-to-energy turbines in Orrington.

During transfer from ship to pier, lifting straps slipped and two bales slung together were dropped. One broke when it hit the pier infrastructure, dispersing its contents into the bay, while the other remained intact and slowly sank into the water.

Opponents of the fine had argued the plastic pollution should be classified as a petroleum product, meaning the spill would carry a much higher penalty. Officials from Islesboro Islands Trust recommended a fine of $340,000, similar to a 2015 Pan American Railway fine of $310,000 for illegally discharging oil into the Kennebec River.

Pamela Parker, water enforcement manager for DEP, said there was a big difference between the Sprague discharge and the Pan American Railway case. “We’re talking apples to kumquats,” she said.

She noted that Pan Am is permitted to discharge oil, and that it had many discharges that were above and beyond what it is permitted for, along with several infrastructure issues associated with its case.

“This really is kind of a unique case,” she said of the Sprague spill.

Because it was a one-time event and Sprague had taken a number of corrective actions to prevent future spills, and because the material did not have a notification requirement, Parker felt the fine was appropriate.

“They have improved their protocols,” she said. “The department can’t tell them how to do their jobs in that circumstance, but we’ve had many productive conversations with them as to how they can better assess risk.” Also discussed were how to better respond to spills of this type and how Sprague could completely prevent future discharges, which Parker said is impossible to do. “Anyone who has dealt in a marine environment will know that sometimes it’s not entirely possible to avoid spills…,” she said.

One board member said treating the discharge as petroleum would make even a release of balloons, which are also petroleum-based, much more interesting in the future.

“It certainly opens Pandora’s box,” Parker said.

Asked why the company did not immediately notify DEP, Parker said there is no requirement that a facility notify the agency when a substance other than oil is discharged into the waters of the state. “There are materials that come in that don’t have statutorily defined notification requirements,” she said.

On Dec. 8, 2020, almost a week after the initial spill, Parker said, her department received complaints of significant amounts of plastic washing up on the causeway and shore of Sears Island. After DEP went to inspect the contamination, she said, Sprague officials notified the department that they had discharged the bales of material into the water.

“I think that Sprague had already started doing shoreline surveying,” Parker said, before a DEP representative met with the company. Sprague began a cleanup effort in earnest after the meeting, and later in the month, recovered the second lost bale.

Tim Winters, director of terminal operations at Sprague Energy, said, “We are sorry to put you in this position where you need to be discussing this and regulating this.” Winters noted that Sprague was the handler and not the end user of the plastic material, which was headed for burning at PERC.

Peter Blair, staff attorney for Conservation Law Foundation, said at the Dec. 2 meeting that Sprague’s penalty was simply not strong enough, in light of the lack of action by the company and the nature of the material itself. The event, he said, violated the public’s trust in Sprague.

The spill should be treated as an oil spill, he said, adding that legally it did fit within the definition. Oil is defined by statute as petroleum products, their byproducts of any kind and in any form, he noted.

Having Sprague make changes to its terminal operations manual and also having it self-regulate, Blair said, are steps in the right direction, but they are not enough. Treating the discharge as an oil spill would place a higher level of scrutiny on the company.

Stephen Miller, Islesboro Islands Trust’s executive director, said the ingestion of microplastics is potentially fatal for marine wildlife and that lobster fishermen should take notice. “This type of waste entering into the marine waters is a threat to our blue economy,” he said.

The board approved the consent agreement by a vote of 3 to 1.

Miller said in a Dec. 7 email to The Republican Journal that his organization was disappointed in the decision but not surprised. “We did leave the BEP meeting, however, feeling that both DEP and the board understand the grave danger that plastics generally, but microplastics in particular, pose and will support regulatory changes that mitigate or eliminate that threat going forward.”