A bale of shredded plastic debris from Northern Ireland that was dropped into Penobscot Bay has been located and retrieved. Credit: Courtesy of Sprague Energy

BELFAST, Maine — One of two bales of shredded plastic trash lost in Penobscot Bay while on its way to a Maine incinerator in early December has been found intact on the bay floor and removed from the water, according to officials from Sprague Energy.

The bales, which weigh more than a ton, were dropped while being unloaded from a cargo ship on Dec. 2, part of an 8,000-bale shipment from the United Kingdom bound for the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. in Orrington, a waste-to-energy plant that generates electricity from burning trash.

After one bale dispersed, heaps of plastic debris washed up on the shores of Sears Island, just across Long Cove from the Sprague Energy Terminal on Mack Point.

A large piece of plastic waste lays on the shore of Sears Island on Dec. 9, 2020, after a spill occurred from a ship from Northern Ireland. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A Maine Maritime Academy team found the second bale on Dec. 21 using a vessel equipped with side-scan sonar, according to Shana Hoch, an official with Sprague Energy.

The team surveyed the area around Sprague dock using its research vessel and located an object with the same dimensions as the bale about 1,000 feet away.

A diver hired by Sprague, later found the bale in approximately 30 feet of water at low tide in about 6 inches of mud, Hoch said.

Divers ratcheted straps around the edges of the bale and lifted it with flotation air bags just enough to work a net under and around the bale, she said. They then used air bags to buoy it and tow it with a boat.

Rolf Olsen, the vice president of Friends of Sears Island, a volunteer group that manages the conservation area on the state-owned island, said that the news came as a relief.

“We’re very grateful and pleased that the second bale has been found intact and retrieved, so that didn’t get washed up on anyone’s shore,” he said Tuesday.

So far, the debris from the first bale seems largely confined to an area between the Sears Island Causeway and the stone jetty, which are about a mile apart, according to Hoch. A previous report that debris from the bale had been found on Islesboro was confirmed to be unrelated, she said.

In mid-December, volunteers and a professional crew from Clean Harbors Environmental of Hampden, which was hired by Sprague, collected more than 21,000 pounds of debris from the beach. The sand, water and seaweed added weight, Hoch said.

David Madore of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection said the spill is a potential violation of environmental laws or regulations and permits.

A final report from the agency is still pending.

The problem of microplastics in the ocean is a global issue that hit home because of the spill.

While plastic still litters the beach at Sears Island, most people wouldn’t notice it, Olsen said.

“An issue like this is largely invisible,” he said.

If Maine continues to import shredded plastic through Mack Point, Olsen hopes Sprague Energy will take extra precautions.

“I’m fully believing that the folks at Sprague have learned something from this,” he said. “This is a really unusual type of spill. Our Maine [Department of Environmental Protection, as near as I could tell, does not have any experience dealing with something like this.”