After half-century of mercury pollution, Mallinckrodt may be forced to clean up Penobscot

After half-century of mercury pollution, Mallinckrodt may be forced to clean up Penobscot

A federal judge in Bangor ordered recommendations be made for a cleanup of toxic mercury in the Penobscot river on Wednesday, following closing arguments in a lawsuit brought by the Maine People’s Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council against Mallinckrodt US LLC.

Mallinckrodt is the company responsible for dumping tons of mercury into the river from the site of the former HoltraChem chemical plant in Orrington. The closing arguments are a major step in a legal battle that began in 2000, when MPA and NRDC first filed suit.

An earlier ruling in the case required the corporation to pay for an independent scientific investigation to assess the damage and recommend a remedy. Among other things, that study found that several species of fish and shellfish—including lobsters—have mercury concentrations that exceed safe thresholds, and people who eat seafood from the river may be at risk of serious harm from the potent neurotoxin. Court-appointed scientists recommended a series of remedies that together could cost more than $100 million.

Mallinckrodt has sought to delay any clean-up process, but Woodcock cited the closure of the lobster fishery at the mouth of the river following the independent study’s findings as a “game changer” and clear evidence that remediation of the river must be addressed. The judge also rejected Mallinckrodt’s request that the company, rather than an independent body, oversee the clean-up.

MPA members outside the federal courthouse in Bangor on Wednesday.

MPA members outside the federal courthouse in Bangor on Wednesday.

Members of MPA and NRDC gathered for a press conference before the hearing to give context to a struggle that has gone on for more than four decades.

“When I was born, 23 years ago, in 1992, toxic mercury from the Holtrachem chemical plant had already been polluting our river for 25 years. This has been, quite literally, a multi-generational struggle,” said Sage Norberg, assistant field canvass director for the MPA. “As a young woman, I am horrified by the findings of the independent scientists and the fact that, as Judge Carter wrote in his 2002 opinion, ‘A pregnant woman could not eat a single Penobscot fish in the measured range without endangering fetal health.'”

“At stake in this historic trial is citizens’ right to hold corporations, no matter how rich or powerful, fully accountable for the damage they inflict on our environment and public health,” said MPA executive director Jesse Graham.

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