Judge calls for engineers to find solutions for mercury cleanup in Maine's Penobscot River

The former owners of the HoltraChem Manufacturing Co. plant were ordered by a federal judge to pay for an engineering study for cleaning up tons of mercury dumped in the Penobscot River.

The order signed Wednesday by Judge John Woodcock sets the stage for a costly cleanup of the toxic heavy metal released by the now-defunct Orrington plant in the 1960s and '70s.

Maine's supreme court ruled last year that Mallinckrodt US LLC had to carry out an estimated $130 million cleanup. The lawsuit by the Maine People's Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council sought to force Mallinckrodt to conduct a more extensive cleanup that includes waters downstream.

Environmental groups hailed the judge's decision as the first step to a thorough cleanup.

"After 40 years, Mallinckrodt finally has to clean up the mess they made," said Nancy Marks, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York.

Mallinckrodt, a former operator of the plant that inherited responsibility after HoltraChem went bankrupt, had argued that the contamination wasn't as great as an earlier study indicated. The subsidiary of medical device manufacturer and supplier Covidien/Medtronic wanted to monitor the river's recovery and conduct a study focused on marsh birds.

But the Maine People's Alliance and Natural Resources Defense Council accused the company of trying to duck its responsibility for a broader environmental cleanup. Last year, the state indefinitely closed a 7-square-mile area of the lower Penobscot River to lobster and crab fishing because of the mercury contamination.

Under Woodcock's order, Mallinckrodt will be required to pay for a full-scale engineering study of cleaning up the contamination once and for all.

"It's long past time for Mallinckrodt to make it right. That means finally removing the mercury contamination so people can go back to fishing, eating lobster, and enjoy the iconic Penobscot river without hesitation," said Jesse Graham, executive director of the Maine People's Alliance.