Down East 2013 ©
This Friday there’s an election in Maine that could have huge repercussions throughout the state. It’s not a people’s veto over taxes or a hard-fought gubernatorial primary; it’s an off-season, single-issue municipal referendum in the town of Orrington, population 3,526.
The voters of Orrington will be deciding a rather complicated ballot question: “On February 2, 2010, the Orrington Board of Selectmen voted to support a remediation plan for the Holtra-Chem site, known as the Woodard and Curran plan. Shall the above described action be repealed?”
The answer to that question could have a lasting impact on people in Orrington and all down the Penobscot, as well as on our state’s government and political culture.
The goal of the “Woodard and Curran plan” is to abandon more than 80,000 pounds of mercury, a persistent, bio-accumulating organic pollutant and a potent neurotoxin, (along with cancer-causing industrial solvents and a lethal pesticide used in chemical warfare during World War I) in four toxic waste dumps on the site of the former HoltraChem plant on the shores of the Penobscot River.
According to testimony by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection , “none of these dumps meets minimal environmental standards for landfill siting, design, construction or engineering — and all are in vulnerable geological settings. In some cases the hazardous waste rests on bedrock aquifers that by law need to be of drinking water quality. Hazardous waste is leaking from these dumps directly into the groundwater.”
The plan is being advanced by a chemical company called Mallinckrodt, which has been found to be financially responsible for the site. The state of Maine has ordered them to do a full cleanup and remove all of the toxic waste, but they are appealing that decision to the Board of Environmental Protection.
If they win, it will save the company $150 million in cleanup costs.
One of the things the Board will take into account in its decision is community opinion on the cleanup. To influence that opinion, Mallinckrodt added the cost of a high-powered PR firm to the likely millions they’ve already spent on lawyers and paid experts, and began flooding the town of Orrington with glossy propaganda.
By hook or by crook, they managed to get the town Board of Selectmen to endorse their version of the plan, despite the fact that public testimony on the issue was heavily in favor of full remediation.
Luckily, the town of Orrington has a provision to allow decisions of the Selectmen to be challenged by public referendum. A group of Orrington residents, assisted by the Maine People’s Alliance (the organization I work for), quickly gathered enough signatures to put it to a vote.
As you can imagine, Mallinckrodt hasn’t sat on their hands. Mailboxes in town have been flooded with company-sponsored literature and their people have spent weeks going door to door to sell their plan.
Mallinckrodt is preying on those affected by the recession by claiming that their so-called cleanup would be done more quickly so the land could be redeveloped for businesses. They decline to mention what kind of business would possibly want to locate on top of hundreds of tons of mercury sludge.
The unstated threat implicit in this argument is that if they don’t get their way, they’ll continue to fight the order in court, filing appeal after appeal and delaying cleanup for as long as they possibly can.
If Mallinckrodt wins this election, not only will people and wildlife in Orrington and all down the Penobscot face generations of mercury leaching into wells and into the river, but a giant, out-of-state corporation will have proven that they can, unencumbered by the disclosure requirements mandated for state referendums, use their money to quietly beat the democratic process into submission.
This is one to watch closely, even if you don’t live in Orrington.
Here’s my full disclosure: I’m writing this column from the dining room table of the house I grew up in on the banks of the Stillwater Branch of the Penobscot River. Yesterday, I met with a group of Orrington residents who are working to win a full cleanup . My younger brother is MPA’s environmental organizer and is helping them to take back their town. From now through Friday, I’ll be pitching in however I can.