PORTLAND, ME (March 14, 2002) -- Some of the highest levels of mercury ever recorded in the country and inaction from regulatory agencies sparked a lawsuit that for the last week and a half has pitted the Maine People's Alliance (MPA) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) against chemical giant Mallinckrodt in U.S. Federal District Court in Portland Maine. As the trial goes into its last day Thursday the citizen groups look forward to a positive ruling and the eventual cleanup of the Penobscot River.
The lawsuit was brought by MPA and NRDC to force the cleanup of mercury from the Penobscot River caused by the now defunct HoltraChem plant. The plant, located along the Penobscot River in Orrington, operated from 1967 until its closure in September 2000.
"We were compelled to bring this suit because the EPA and DEP dropped the ball and allowed the worst mercury pollution in Maine's history. It is time for the truth," said John Dieffenbacher-Krall, Co-Director of the Maine People's Alliance.
"We have asked the court to order a fair and independent study of the scope of the mercury contamination downriver of the plant -- which has never been done before. After 30 years of delays and denials, it is time for the truth about mercury contamination downriver and the risks to public health and the environment," said Nancy Marks, a staff attorney with NRDC.
A consent decree negotiated by the government with the former owners of the site has been in effect since the early 1990's; it has focused on pollution at the plant site and immediately down river. MPA and NRDC contend that the data generated to date shows the mercury is moving down river and possibly entering productive marshes such as those found at the mouth of Marsh Creek. Without a proper scientific investigation the preliminary cleanup standards proposed by the DEP and EPA are not strong enough. MPA's and NRDC's environmental expert, Dr. Robert Livingston, described these standards as "hopeless" in terms of addressing the real ecological questions posed by 34 years of plant operation.
Kate White, a Maine People's Alliance board member, who sat in on the trial on Tuesday said, "It was disturbing to hear Mallinckrodt's witness, Dr. Jerome Cura, admit that in one study 8 out of 10 of his sampling sites were up river, not down river, from the plant. I am very concerned that this kind of gross oversight might contribute to the continuing contamination of our rivers. It is time for the truth."
Data collected by MPA, NRDC and other sources shows mercury contamination extends far down river beyond the plant site. A study conducted by MPA and NRDC in October 1999 found elevated levels of mercury in sediments all the way to Cape Jellison. Mercury is devastating to aquatic ecosystems and human health. Mercury's harmful effects on wildlife including loons, eagles and fish are well documented and have lead to statewide health advisories regarding the human consumption of fish.
Guy Chocensky, a member of the Maine People's Alliance who lives near the Penobscot River in Searsport spoke at a press conference out side the court house on Tuesday saying, "This is simple, we all learned it in kindergarten: you cleanup after yourself."
The legal team includes Nancy S. Marks, Mitchell S. Bernard, and Corinne Schiff of NRDC, as well as Eric J Uhl of Moon, Moss, McGill, Hayes & Shapiro in Portland; and Phillippe A. Selendy and Helen Maher of Boies, Schiller & Flexner in New York City.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The Maine People's Alliance is a statewide, nonprofit, membership organization committed to citizen democracy and economic, environmental and social justice. Comprising more than 16,000 members, it was founded in 1982, and maintains offices in Bangor, Lewiston and Portland.