Federal trial on Penobscot River mercury pollution delayed one month

Maine Supreme Court upholds order for clean-up of Holtrachem landfills
By Dan West | Apr 08, 2014

Bangor — Judge John Woodcock Jr. granted a motion by the plaintiffs to delay the federal trial over mercury pollution in the Penobscot River by four weeks.

Attorney Mitchell Bernard, who represents the Natural Resources Defense Council and Maine People's Alliance, filed a motion April 2 requesting a delay in the start date of the trial. Bernard requested the continuation because of a personal medical issue.

Bernard was scheduled for surgery April 7 and stated that he would need several weeks to recover. While the trial was not set to begin until May 7, Bernard stated in his motion "missing two weeks of trial preparation will make it difficult for me to represent the plaintiffs in the manner they deserve."

Bernard also acknowledged the time sensitive nature of the trial, which will determine what, if any, remediation Mallinckrodt US LLC will be required to undertake on the river.

"The plaintiffs have fought for an early trial due to the importance of the human health and environmental issues before the Court, and the length of time the remedy phase of the case has been pending," Bernard stated. "We would not make this request absent extraordinary circumstances."

The defendant's counsel consented to Bernard's motion and Judge Woodcock granted the delay on April 3. The trial will now go forward in early June.

According to court documents, in 2002 Mallinckrodt was determined to be responsible for the pollution at the contaminated HoltraChem site in Orono. It has been ordered to clean up several mercury contaminated landfills on the HoltraChem site, but it has not been determined what it should do about waters around that plant, which are under federal jurisdiction.

Following the 2002 decision, the court ordered the formation of a panel to study mercury contamination in marine life in the waters around the HoltraChem plant. The study’s findings were recently used to justify the closure of much of the Penobscot River between Stockton Springs and Verona Island to lobster and crab fishing due to unacceptably high levels of mercury found in the shellfish.

At trial the U.S. District Court in Bangor will determine whether the recommendations of the Study Panel — that Mallinckrodt perform remediation on the river to increase the rate of recovery for that estuary — should be pursued. The surface sediment in that area of the Penobscot River still has highly elevated levels of mercury contamination, according to the panel's report.

Maine's Supreme Court recently upheld a Board of Environmental Protection order, which requires Mallinckrodt to clean up the former Holtrachem plant site in Orono.

That decision came down April 3, stating: "The Commissioner’s order required Mallinckrodt to excavate material containing mercury and other contaminants from five landfills located on a site adjacent to the Penobscot River in Orrington, and to transfer the material to off-site landfills. The Board’s decision modified the Commissioner’s order, requiring that Mallinckrodt excavate only two of the landfills and that it secure and monitor the others. We affirm the judgment."

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