Mountains of carpet-like material arrived in Warren around 1998, when the Department of Environmental Protection allowed the rifle range owner to bring in the materials from Auburn. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

WARREN, Maine ― Residents in Warren have resisted foreclosing on an abandoned rifle range in fear that taking over the property would make the town liable for cleaning up nearly 27,000 tons of carpet-like material that was left on the site.

But with the latest effort by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to remove the material set to expire at the end of the year with little to show for it, residents are losing faith that the state agency will be successful in cleaning up even part of the site.

Residents once again voted to waive foreclosure of the 70-acre property on Route 90 at a special town meeting Wednesday night by a vote of 21 to 10. But selectboard members and a group of residents said they would like to convene a committee to look into the town’s options for cleaning up the site if it took ownership.

The mountains of carpet-like material arrived around 1998, when the DEP allowed the rifle range owner to bring in the materials from Auburn. Steamship Navigation claimed it was going to use the material as berms to stop bullets from leaving the property.

But the berm project was never completed, and soon after the materials arrived, the property owners seemingly disappeared.

The DEP gained control of the site through a court order in 2001 and has been looking for ways to remove the materials since. A previous attempt to remove them fizzled out in 2017, when a contract with a Massachusetts company ended with the removal of much less material than anticipated.

The DEP renewed removal efforts in 2018, ultimately granting a contract to Farley and Sons Inc., a local contractor, and Dragon Cement. That contract expires Friday, though no material has been removed from the site since August 2019 due to handling and processing problems at Dragon Cement. Only 16 tons of material were removed under the contract.

The DEP will once again send out a request for proposals for the materials’ removal in the first quarter of 2022, DEP spokesperson David Madore said.

“There have been a number of what have seemed like good ideas, good efforts, but nothing has panned out,” said Doug Pope, a former selectboard member.

Some in Warren have lost faith in the DEP, and think the town should take charge.

“I don’t believe a word out of the DEP’s mouth,” said Ed LaFlamme, a former selectboard member. “I think we should start to clean up the problem.”

“I think the town has a responsibility, even though we didn’t create it, I think you’ve got a responsibility to your citizens to not let that hazardous waste leech into the ground,” Alvin Chase said.

The town would have to own the property to apply for grants and take other steps to clean up the property. But for decades the town has received legal opinions advising against foreclosing on the property and taking ownership.

“DEP created this problem and I say let them get out of it. It’s not our problem to get out of it,” Selectboard member John Crabtree said.

The material is highly flammable, and the risk of fire has been cited as a top concern.

Chase, Pope and LaFlamme were among a group of people Wednesday night who said they would serve on a committee to at least begin looking into the town’s options with the property.

A similar idea was floated last year, though not enough people showed interest in joining the committee at that time. Pope, who signed up to serve on the committee last year as well, gets the sense that this latest effort is different.  

“It’s just one of those intractable problems that has to be solved. If people with good intentions don’t step up and try to make an effort then nothing is going to happen,” Pope said. “Everybody is really interested and has a genuine wish to see this problem get solved.”