GAC to voluntarily test samples of shoreline sediment
SEARSPORT — GAC Chemical Corp., located on Stockton Harbor in Searsport, has voluntarily entered into an agreement with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to investigate whether its shoreline is contaminated from historic uses of the site, and if it is, to clean it up.
Community members have raised concern that a former sulfuric acid manufacturing facility on the western side of the property may be leaching contaminants to the shore and adjacent mudflats, and are now advocating that the public be involved in the development of the voluntary investigation and possible clean-up plan.
The state's Voluntary Response Action Program provides liability protection for applicants and others in exchange for investigation and cleanup.
According to Maine statute, to be protected from DEP enforcement actions, the VRAP applicant must "undertake and complete response actions to remove or remedy all known discharges, releases and threatened releases at an identified area of real property in accordance with a voluntary response action plan approved by the commissioner,” or partially clean up the site if the cleanup action protects public health and the environment.
Nick Hodgkins, VRAP coordinator at the department, confirmed that the chemical company is participating in the program. GAC will submit sampling data to DEP for review, and from there, additional testing or a remedial plan could follow.
“The intertidal area below GAC Chemical has been studied extensively over the last 30 years in coordination with the Maine DEP,” GAC president David Colter wrote in an email to The Republican Journal.
“A past study completed by the Marine Environmental Monitoring Program states that 'marine life in the area is reproducing and growing' and no remediation of the area is recommended," he said. "Our voluntary entry into [VRAP] demonstrates GAC’s willingness to perform further testing in an effort to determine the current status of conditions in the intertidal area.”
Colter also said that information being disseminated about the condition of the intertidal area is not accurate, and said “we encourage anyone with questions to contact us or the DEP directly to obtain accurate information.”
Local activist group Friends of Penobscot Bay has been pressuring municipal, state and federal authorities to conduct a full investigation of the site, including sampling and testing of the shoreline sediments near the former plant. The group collected mud samples there and sent them to Dr. Mark Green, an oceanography professor at St. Joseph's College and a state Ocean Acidification Commission member, who found them to be highly acidic.
Green concluded in an April 9 report on his study of the samples, “Results presented here clearly demonstrate a significant anthropogenic acid source and should merit concern for the well-being of local residents in contact with these sediments, recreation in the immediate area and wildlife.”
No official investigation to verify these results has been initiated by DEP, the U.S. Coast Guard or the Environmental Protection Agency, or by the Searsport Select Board, which FOPB members addressed July 15. DEP determined no additional action was necessary and the other three bodies deferred to DEP's conclusion.
FOPB has been in communication with GAC as well about its concerns. According to emails between Colter and FOPB President Ron Huber, which Huber provided to The Journal, Colter and FOPB members conducted a site walk of the GAC property in July 2012. Colter agreed GAC would clean up much of the inert ceramic debris and look into options for dealing with erosion of the banks along the shore.
In May 2014, Colter wrote to Huber: "Over the past nine months we have had our shoreline reviewed and/or inspected by seven representatives from the Maine DEP and licensed professionals from an environmental consulting firm hired by GAC. It was determined that the erosion along our shoreline is not significant and does not require immediate attention." Colter indicated then that the company was considering voluntary action at the site.
Under state oversight
A DEP memo details one visit to the site in October 2013 in which officials visually inspected the sediment and potential pollution sources, and determined no further action was necessary.
The officials reviewed logs of boring samples taken in the 1980s. Sulfur was noted in the logs as being present in one boring. Around the former sulfuric acid plant, the memo notes, “small pieces of sulfur were visible on the surface … and some yellow discoloration was apparent, primarily south and west of the plant” in a "poorly vegetated area" and that “it looks as though surface water runoff would flow over the bank ... toward an area of the shore where we noted discoloration in the intertidal area.” Gradual erosion was also noted.
Kelsey O'Neil, community involvement coordinator at the EPA New England office, said an investigation is referred to the EPA by a state's environmental department if it is unable to respond adequately to a problem with resources it has available, which has not happened in this case.
“It is under the state's oversight at this point,” she said.
Call for public involvement
Although the EPA will not be devoting any resources toward an investigation of the GAC site, James Chow of the EPA enforcement office did make a phone call to Hodgkins at DEP in which he advised Hodgkins that there is significant community and public interest in the area and encouraged him to afford the public an opportunity to be involved.
There are three tiers of public involvement to which a VRAP project may be required to adhere, ranging from maintaining a public record and listing the site on the Division of Remediation site list, to notifying the municipality and adjacent property owners about activities on the site, to a Tier 3 requirement for public review and comment on the proposed work plan.
FOPB is calling for Tier 3 public involvement for the site. Hodgkins told Chow the Tier 3 requirement would be triggered if any off-site contamination is found.
FOPB has contacted the Army Corps of Engineers and, at the suggestion of Mike Barry of EPA, will contact the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to request that it initiate a National Resource Damage Assessment Process to determine if federally owned property at Sears Island has been impacted by contaminants from the GAC property.
GAC has not submitted a sampling plan to DEP as of Oct. 21, so it is uncertain how extensive the sampling will be.
"We will continue to work to ensure that our operations are conducted consistent with all environmental and other regulatory requirements," Colter said. "We believe in working proactively with regulatory authorities, which we have done and will continue to do."