Caribou has gotten a major federal grant to clean up the former steam and diesel plants near the city's riverfront region. Removing two nearby tanks will be a future goal. Credit: Courtesy of Penny Thompson

CARIBOU, Maine — Caribou is one step closer to removing a former hydro plant that has delayed riverfront redevelopment for decades.

The city received a Brownfields Clean-Up Grant from the Environmental Protection Agency last week. The $900,000 award will pay for the removal of asbestos, lead-based paint, petroleum products and other hazardous materials at Caribou’s former diesel power plant at 142 Lower Lyndon St. 

The diesel plant will be the first building within Caribou’s former hydroelectric power dam to be removed and cleaned up. If successful, city officials plan to clean up the former steam plant site once part of that operation.

Doing so would boost the Caribou Riverfront Renaissance Committee’s efforts to reclaim that area for recreational parks, fishing and potential new businesses and residences.

“This investment from the EPA will not only remove a blighted property from our scenic Aroostook riverfront, but also eliminate significant water quality threats,” Mayor Jody Smith said.

Caribou’s hydroelectric dam was constructed in 1889. The now-defunct Caribou Water, Light and Power Co. operated the dam until the 1940s when Maine Public Service Co., now Versant Power, took over. In its heyday, the dam generated 30 megawatts of power for the city and nearby communities.

The diesel plant is 10,290 square feet and was constructed on 3.2 acres in 1949 following the steam plant, which is 12,288 square feet.

A nationwide focus on environmental waste clean-up led to reforms along Caribou’s Aroostook River, after the power plant and nearby agricultural facilities had dumped toxic waste for decades. 

With the power plant non-operational since the mid-2000s and a local group planning to build a fish hatchery near the river, Caribou leaders want the riverfront free of those toxins and to become an economically feasible area.

A 2021 survey issued by the riverfront committee garnered 90 responses from residents who said they’d like to see more pedestrian trails, parks and perhaps businesses like brew pubs, cafes and small restaurants. The city has begun rezoning efforts to accommodate future business and residential development.

“This [clean-up] project is a great step for the community to begin utilizing the riverfront and feel safe while doing so,” City Manager Penny Thompson said.

Both the steam and diesel plants generated power until 1992 when the facilities were sold to Wisconsin Power Co. Attempts to revive the hydroelectric dam were unsuccessful and the plants sat vacant until local investor Jim Barresi purchased them.

After Baressi’s death in 2019, the city acquired the land that both plants sit on, assuming responsibility for their eventual clean-ups. City officials have not yet acquired land adjacent to the plants that Barresi’s company, Merlin One, still owns. Barresi’s heirs owe the city $87,797 in unpaid taxes.

Caribou-based County Environmental Engineering found that 11,320 gallons of petroleum products, asbestos and other hazardous waste exist within the former diesel plant. They estimated that asbestos clean-up would cost $400,000 and that other waste removal would cost $200,000.

Under the grant funding, the city will hire a qualified environmental professional to coordinate the project and update related health and safety plans. The city will go out to bid for licensed abatement, demolition and hazardous waste transport services this fall, Thompson said.

This summer, Caribou will collaborate with the University of Connecticut’s Technical Assistance to Brownfields Communities program on the riverfront-based community survey.

“We’ll be getting feedback from the community on what they’d like to see [on the diesel plant site] after the Brownfields project,” Thompson said.

As work begins on the diesel plant site this fall, city officials will apply for additional Brownfields funding to remove the former steam plant.