June 04, 2014BERLIN – A chemical plant that once supported Berlin's paper industry closed years ago, but not without leaving a 4.6 acre site so contaminated it has qualified as a Superfund site. Last week a meeting was held to update interested residents and town officials on the progress being made to ultimately clean it up.
A plan for cleaning up the cell house site and additional impacted sites on the east side of the Androscoggin River is still about a year away, Darryl Luce, Project Manager with the EPA, said last Thursday.
Data gathering will continue this summer and fall. Possible cleanup plans will be presented at a public hearing early next year, with a decision on which plan to go forward with occurring in September 2015. No date was presented as to when actual clean up will begin. In response to a question, Luce said there is some money available, but the project will depend on available funding.
The cell house site is located on the east side of the river, just south of the Saw Mill Dam, which is the dam at the Northern Forest Heritage Park. It is at the far north of the 60-acre former paper mill property, part of which is now being used at a bio-mass facility.
The following description of the site's history is from a Dartmouth Superfund Research Program on the Berlin site.
"From 1898 to the 1960's, at the former Chlor-alkali facility just downstream of the Sawmill Dam on the Androscoggin River, various industrial chemicals, including chlorine, caustic soda, hydrogen, and chloroform, were made using electrolytic cell houses, collections of chemical compound separators that used electrically- charged mercury and graphite particles in order to deconstruct more complicated chemicals into the desired industrial ones. Along with the production of the desired chemical, excess salt compounds containing graphite and mercury were disposed of improperly—either by being dumped on the land surrounding the river or in the Androscoggin itself.
In 1962, chemical operations were stopped as the Chlor-alkali facility went out of business, and in 1963 the land was abandoned. The 4.6-acre site was largely untouched until, in 1997, a Limited Environmental Assessment was made on the site, confirming that it was highly contaminated. In 1999 a chemical "cap", or barrier of neutralizing chemicals, was placed at the site and efforts began to clean the site up to higher environmental standards.
There were once several buildings on the. The last remaining building was torn down in 1999. Although there were some features on site, a foundation wall and a slurry wall that was installed in 1999 that hold back some materials, chemicals are leaking off-site into the river.
Officials from both the EPA and the N.H. Department of Environmental Services (DES) were present at the meeting, which was attended by about two dozen people.
The site was added to the Superfund in 2005 and the EPA began a formal environmental investigation in 2009. A final report on that remedial investigation was released in March 2013. There are copies at City Hall and the library.
Thursday night's presentation included several slides that showed the location of three sites under investigation, as well as close ups that show beads of mercury coming from the site along the banks of the river. These leaks are generally occurring along fractures in the foundation wall.
The three sites being studied are the cell house parcel itself, the southern facility study area and the eastern facility study area. The largest problems are on the cell house site. The other two have what were called by the environmental officials "hot spots" where there were high contamination that could pose a threat to bird and mammals.
On the cell house site some of the work done included a number of bedrock wells 200 feet deep, soil bores and six test pits, which showed mercury, dioxins and furans present. The goal of these tests was to determine not only what was on the site, but how the ground water was passing from the property to the river.
Regarding the river itself, 27 miles were looked at, which were divided into nine regions from which samples were taken. The Shelburne Reservoir was the last area sampled.
Sediment at the river bottom, as well as bugs, birds and fish were tested.
As researchers had expected, because of the flow of the river and the condition of the mercury, the farther down the river the greater the accumulated contamination. At the Shelburne site the mercury reading was six times that found elsewhere.
Although the fish are not safe to eat in the tested area, "despite the continual discharge of elemental mercury into the Androscoggin River, EPA found no significant decrease in the survival of aquatic and animal life," a press release states.