Maine People’s Alliance (MPA) returns to U.S. District Court on June 3 to fight the next crucial round in a 14-year legal battle against global health care giant Covidien and its subsidiary Mallinckrodt Corp. for their extensive mercury pollution of the Penobscot River ecosystem and fisheries.

More than 26 years ago, the MPA identified the chlor-alkali plant operating in Orrington as one of the most dangerous industrial sites in Maine. The plant, operated by a number of corporate owners over the years, produced chlorine, caustic soda and other products, primarily for the paper industry. It used a dirty, outdated process that relied on tons of mercury.

During the plant’s initial years of operation from 1967 to 1970, it ran with virtually no environmental controls, dumping tons of mercury into the Penobscot River. Today, it’s owned by Mallinckrodt Corp., a subsidiary of Covidien, a multi-billion dollar company that manufactures medical devices and supplies.

The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) directed plant owners to undertake studies and collect samples to determine the extent of pollution onsite, but the agency ignored the tremendous amount of mercury the plant had dumped into the Penobscot River in years past. So MPA teamed up with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a national environmental organization with skilled lawyers and scientists, to demand that DEP order plant owners to investigate the mercury pollution of the Penobscot River.

DEP refused to take action. After many months of attempting to persuade the DEP to act, MPA and NRDC sued the current and past plant owners.

MPA is determined to win one of the most important cases in the history of citizen enforcement of environmental laws. The outcome of the court case will dictate who should pay to clean up the highly toxic mercury dumped into the Penobscot River. At stake in this historic trial is the right citizens to hold corporations—no matter how rich or powerfulfully accountable for the damage they inflict on our environment and public health.

Our legal battle with the corporate polluter started in 2000, when together with NRDC we first filed suit against Mallinckrodt, seeking to force the company to clean up the mercury it had dumped into the largest estuary in New England, which is a direct conduit to Penobscot Bay and a major source of fish and shellfish consumed by millions of people.

We won a landmark ruling after that trial when a federal court found that Mallinckrodt was liable for large releases of mercury that were endangering human health and the environment. At our request, the court appointed three independent scientists to investigate the mercury contamination and recommend any necessary cleanup.

Last year, that scientific panel released its long-awaited report and it landed like a bombshell. Among its findings were that more than nine metric tons of mercury remain in the ecosystem today at dangerously high levels; several species of fish and shellfish, including lobsters and eels in the lower part of the river, have mercury concentrations that exceed safe thresholds; birds feeding in the river’s marshes have some of the highest blood and feather mercury levels in the world; and human consumers of some Penobscot River seafood may be at risk of serious harm from mercury, a potent neurotoxin.

The court-appointed scientists estimate that it would take as long as 60 years for natural processes in the river to dilute the mercury to safe levels. Given the extent of contamination and the slow recovery, the panel recommended cleanup measures that could cost Mallinckrodt and Covidien more than $100 million.

The upcoming trial sets an important precedent. Will the courts make corporate polluters like Mallinckrodt remedy the mess they made of one of America’s greatest rivers, or will they let them cut and run?

Given the high stakes, you better believe that Mallinckrodt and Covidien will do everything possible to dodge a full reckoning of the harm they did to our river ecosystem. They have a full battalion of lawyers preparing for trial. They have retained several consulting firms to attack the scientific panel’s recommendations and we expect to face a parade of “expert witnesses” who will be paid handsomely to whitewash the all-too-real dangers of mercury contamination.

So much is at stake. Corporate polluters across America are watching this case like hawks, waiting to see if mega-corporations with deep pockets can break the law and escape justice. 

Jesse Graham is executive director of Maine People’s Alliance and lives with his family in Bar Harbor.