The site of the former HoltraChem facility in Orrington on June 16, 2015. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

A federal judge has signed off on a settlement under which a onetime owner of an Orrington chemical plant will pay almost $200 million to clean up mercury contamination in the Penobscot River.

U.S. District Judge John Woodcock Jr. on Tuesday approved a settlement that requires Mallinckrodt U.S. LLC to pay for remediation efforts after the Maine People’s Alliance and Natural Resources Defense Council in 2000 sued the owners of the HoltraChem Manufacturing plant, which sat on the banks of the river. The litigation has been the oldest pending case in Maine’s federal courts.

Mallinckrodt was one of a handful of owners of the now defunct HoltraChem plant that produced chlorine bleach for paper mills between 1967 and 2000. A previous court-ordered study found that the plant discharged six to 12 metric tons of mercury into the Penobscot between 1967 and the early 1970s. The company owned the plant from 1967 to 1982, and Woodcock ruled in 2015 that it was legally responsible for the river cleanup.

The HoltraChem plant closed in 2000, the same year HoltraChem filed for bankruptcy and the Maine People’s Alliance and Natural Resources Defense Council filed their lawsuit.  

The settlement, which the parties agreed to in March 2021, puts the river under a consent decree and will require Mallinckrodt to pay at least $187 million and up to $267 million to trusts that will fund restoration and remediation efforts to clean up the river and the surrounding environs.

“For decades, our communities suffered while nothing was done to clean up extensive mercury contamination in the Penobscot River,” said Jesse Graham, Maine People’s Alliance’s co-director.

“It’s long past time for Mallinckrodt to make it right, and this ruling will go a long way toward restoring the Penobscot, so people can go back to fishing, eating lobster, and enjoying this river that is so fundamental to the lives of people who live in this part of Maine.”

Mark Robinson, spokesperson for Mallinckrodt, said the company was pleased the settlement, negotiated in 2020, had been approved.

“The parties reached agreement after thorough and thoughtful discussions, and the court’s approval reinforces our belief that the terms will deliver measurable benefits, mitigate risk wisely, and promote the best interests of the Penobscot River and its surrounding communities,” he said Tuesday. “We look forward to working with the trustee as remediation takes place. Input from the public has been an integral part of this process, and opportunities for public participation will continue as this important work proceeds.”

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Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.