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by Rich Hewitt
Crews have removed about half of a wide swath of additional contaminants discovered during the cleanup at the former Callahan Mine site.
Digging as deep as six feet in some areas, the crews have been removing PCBs—polychlorinated biphenyls—from the site. Initial investigations at the former mine site had indicated limited deposits of the PCBs, but according to Ed Hathaway, the project manager from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as the clean-up began, they discovered additional deposits of the toxins.
The PCBs had contaminated a six-acre area around the former operations area to a depth of about one foot. In some areas, Hathaway said, the contamination went as deep as six feet.
The “smear” of PCBs is very “atypical,” Hathaway told residents last week during an informal update of the work at the federal superfund site. “It’s been quite a challenge for us.”
Hathaway said they requested additional funding from the Superfund program to deal with the additional PCBs. As of October 25, he said, crews had cleaned up about 50 percent of the contaminated area, but still had about three more acres to do. They hoped to clean up the areas of highest concentration by the end of this week, at which point, work for this season will begin to wind down. The most heavily contaminated soils will be removed from the site. Soils with low-level contamination will be stored on site and will be covered over in the final phases of the cleanup.
The EPA is used to seeing PCB hotspots at industrial sites, but it was unusual to find such widespread contamination. Hathaway suggested that mine operators may have used oil containing PCBs, which were legal at the time, for dust suppression. But since the EPA has no operational data from the mine, which closed in the early 1970s, they had no way of knowing how the contamination occurred over such a wide area.
Hathaway said the crews have a mobile lab on site so they can test the soil as they dig it up and get results quickly. The three acres that have been cleaned so far are safe for unrestricted use, Hathaway said. He added, however, that there will still be restrictions on the use of groundwater and on clamming in and around Goose Cove.
Much of the discussion last week focused on the offer from the current owners of the mine site to donate the 150-acre site to the town. Attorneys for the Smith Cove Preservation Trust made the offer earlier this summer. Although selectmen have received no new details about the offer, Selectman John Gray said that Sally Mills, the Ellsworth attorney who represents the trust locally, confirmed that the trust still wants to donate the land to the town, but that it is taking more time than expected to put together a formal offer. Hathaway added that a landscape architect representing the trust had been on site as part of that process.
The selectmen expressed initial interest in the offer, but Gray said they want to get a sense of whether the townspeople were interested. He added that they wanted to see what the offer looked like before they talked about accepting it.
Several residents raised concerns about the town’s future liability for maintenance of the site once the cleanup is completed. Hathaway stressed, as he has before, that under federal law, the federal government will be responsible not only for the cleanup, but for any monitoring and maintenance at the site. He added that, if the town accepts the site and develops a use plan for the site, the EPA can design the final landscape design for the site to accommodate that plan.
“We can’t do community development; we won’t build any ball fields or hockey rinks,” he said. “But if there is a use plan, we can try to customize the cleanup tied to that plan.”
Resident Jody Spear expressed concern about the town accepting the gift of the former mine and questioned whether a site as heavily contaminated as the Callahan Mine could ever be cleaned up enough to make it safe for the public to use. Hathaway said that if residents were concerned he would bring health officials back to Brooksville to talk about health safety issues. But he repeated that although there will be some restrictions, once the cleanup is completed, the site will be safe for recreational use both on the land and the water.
That will take some time. The cleanup of the PCBs and the cleanup of residential properties near the site, which already has been completed, are just the first phase of the project. It will likely be a couple of more years before the design for the next phase is completed, Hathaway said, adding that he is optimistic that they could be ready to request funding for the next phase within the next three or four years. That request, he said, then goes into the national pool where it must compete for funds with other Superfund cleanup projects.