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The company that spilled a literal ton of plastic into Penobscot Bay has agreed to pay the state a $17,800 fine.
This consent agreement between the State of Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Sprague Operating Resources LLC also included revisions by Sprague to some of its terminal operations to reduce the risk of spills in the future. The agreement was approved by the citizen-led Maine Board of Environmental Protection, with sign-off from the Maine attorney general’s office as well.
But not everyone approves. And we don’t either.
“This is insufficient,” leaders of the Conservation Law Foundation wrote to the DEP. “The Department should assess a higher fine given the scope and severity of the environmental harm, as well as Sprague’s failure to immediately notify the Department of the spill.”
The two bales of debris, on their way to the incinerator in Orrington after being shipped across the Atlantic from Ireland, were dropped in the water while being unloaded in Searsport. One bale “broke open after hitting the pier infrastructure” and fell into the water, according to the consent agreement, while the other remained intact and was located weeks later by divers and recovered.
Clearly the fine is not the only cost that Sprague incurred in this process. There were search and cleanup costs as well. But the timeline of Sprague’s failure to quickly notify the state of this spill is egregious, and warranted a greater fine.
The timeline is laid out in the agreement that both the state and the company signed. The spill was on Dec. 2 of last year. It took the company a week to report the incident. They didn’t report it when it happened (As we understand it, Maine law doesn’t require such reporting in this case, though it should). They didn’t even report it six days after it happened, when the DEP received a complaint about “garbage/plastic” on and in the water near Sears Island. The DEP suspected that this material had come from Sprague’s terminal, and “advised Sprague to inspect the shorelines and clean up any material.”
Surely at that point, the company told the state what it already knew about the lost bales, right? Nope. It wasn’t until the next day, when DEP staff visited the Searsport site, that the company reported the then week-old incident.
That is some absolute garbage.
“This breach of trust does need to be sufficiently punished, not only to deter other companies, but to make sure Sprague operates correctly in the future,” Conservation Law Foundation staff attorney Peter Blair told Maine Public.
It’s hard to imagine that companies like Sprague making hundreds of millions of dollars in sales each year won’t simply shrug a proportionately tiny fine like this off as a cost of doing business. That is a terrible message for Maine regulators to send.
The Islesboro Islands Trust recommended a $340,000 fine — pointing to penalties in state law that range from $100 per day to $10,000 per day, and the 34 days between the Dec. 2, 2020 incident and when Sprague and the DEP agreed to suspend cleanup efforts on Jan. 5, 2021.
We won’t pretend to have all the answers when it comes to solving the many waste challenges in Maine and globally. Waste management policy is complicated and, well, messy. Sometimes it’s an actual garbage fire.
But we do know at least one thing: When the stakes are as high as protecting Maine’s coast and other valuable natural resources, the penalty must match the severity of the crime in order to deter similar offenses. A $17,800 fine, for a multimillion dollar company that dragged its feet reporting this kind of incident, doesn’t cut it.