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Lost bale of plastic waste from cargo ship retrieved

By Fran Gonzalez | Dec 30, 2020
Courtesy of: Sprague Energy Co. A missing bale of plastic waste is brought on land at Mack Point Dec. 23.

Searsport — A bale of plastic waste that fell into Penobscot Bay as it was being unloaded off a ship at Mack Point in early December has been found and retrieved intact.

Shana Hoch, managing director of marketing and customer experience at Sprague Energy Co., the port operator, said that 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.

Shreds of the loose material washed ashore on Sears Island the week of Dec. 14. Sears Island lies just across Long Cove from the Sprague terminal on Mack Point.

Several advocacy groups, concerned community members and students from Maine Ocean School volunteered to clean up the debris. Sprague crews, along with a team from Clean Harbors, also took part in cleanup efforts.

"After the divers found no evidence of the second bale in the water by our dock, we were interested in using a vessel equipped with side scan sonar to extend the search," Hoch said.

"We reached out to the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences (with assistance from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to ask for support in modeling where the bale may have drifted, based on its size and weight and the currents. Both groups suggested that it would not have travelled very far."

Hoch said the company Sprague usually uses for side sonar was not available, so it reached out to Maine Maritime Academy President Bill Brennan for assistance.

On Monday, Dec. 21, the academy team surveyed the area around the Sprague Energy dock at Mack Point using a research vessel and a side scan sonar.

"They located an object that had the same dimensions as the bale about 1,000 feet from our berth," she said.

Sprague's diving contractor was able to confirm that the image on the sonar was the second bale, Hoch said. It was in approximately 30 feet of water at low tide and lying on its side in about 6 inches of mud.

"The divers used ratcheting straps and slowly worked them under the edges of the bale to slowly lift it with flotation air bags. They lifted it only enough so that they could work a net under and around the bale to help keep the bale intact," Hoch said.

"Once the bale was completely encircled by the net, the divers were able to use the air bags to help the bale achieve neutral buoyancy so it could then be moved with a boat."

The bale was moved to the Sprague boat launch, where it was attached to a front-end loader and pulled from the water. After it had been ashore for 30-45 minutes, the water-logged bale weighed almost 4,000 pounds, she said. The outer plastic wrap was intact, but the wrapping is not watertight.

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 backup fuel source for its waste-to-energy turbines.

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, he said.

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


The bale is located using sonar in approximately 30 feet of water at low tide and lying on its side in about 6 inches of mud. (Courtesy of: Sprague Energy Co.)
Location where the bale was found in relation to Mack Point port terminal in Penobscot Bay. Sears Island is seen on the right. (Photo by: Shana Hoch, Sprague Operating Resources)
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