The former Chlor-Alkali facility was historically located on a parcel approximately 4.6 acres in size on the east bank of the Androscoggin River just downstream of the Sawmill Dam in Berlin, New Hampshire.
From 1898 to the 1960s, chlorine and other chemicals (caustic soda, hydrogen, and chloroform) were produced using electrolytic cells in “cell houses” on the property. Diaphragm and mercury cells produced chlorine for use in the manufacture of paper at the adjacent pulp mill. Most of the onsite structures were razed and buried on site in the 1960s. The property is currently vacant and owned by the bankrupt Pulp and Paper of America, LLC.
Since 1997, various site investigations have determined that there is soil contaminated with mercury at concentrations significantly above DES’s soil standards. Site groundwater also exceeds the Ambient Groundwater Quality Standards for mercury, lead, arsenic, chloroform, and dichloromethane (methylene chloride). Elemental mercury has been observed in the bedrock fissures along the Androscoggin River located directly adjacent to the site.
There is currently a fish consumption advisory for the Androscoggin River from Berlin downstream to the Maine border due to elevated concentrations of dioxins (DES fact sheet on “Mercury and Other Pollutants in Fish”). All populations are advised against consuming any fish from this portion of the river. People who disregard the advisory and eat fish caught in this segment of the river could be exposed to contaminant levels that exceed safe eating guidelines.
Seven rare bird species are known to live or feed close to the Androscoggin River near the site and could therefore be harmed by the contaminants being released from the site; these are the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, common nighthawk, northern harrier, osprey, common loon, and Cooper’s hawk.
In 1999, Crown Vantage Paper Company, in preparation for sale of said property to Pulp and Paper of America, conducted closure activities intended to isolate contamination at the site from the surrounding environment. The remaining cell house building was demolished and disposed on-site, a slurry wall was constructed on two sides of the property, and an impermeable cap was constructed over most of the property to inhibit rain from percolating into the area containing demolition debris and other contaminated media. However, water continues to flow from a drainage pipe from the capped area to the river, indicating that groundwater seepage into the capped area is still occurring. To address the mercury seeping through bedrock cracks into the Androscoggin River, grout was injected into some of the bedrock cracks and visible mercury was collected from the river and its bank. Despite these response activities, mercury continues to seep into the Androscoggin River adjacent to the site.
Between 1999 and 2006, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services removed approximately 140 pounds of mercury and mercury-containing debris and sediments from the river and its banks.
The site was listed on the National Priorities List (Superfund) in September 2005, making cleanup activities eligible for federal funding. The first stage of the Superfund process, the remedial investigation (RI), began in September 2006, with EPA conducting limited sediment and surface water sampling in the Androscoggin River. EPA conducted additional limited sediment and surface water sampling in the River in 2007. EPA held an RI-kickoff meeting with their selected Remedial Action Contractor, Nobis Engineering Inc., on July 31, 2007. However, the full-scale RI field activities did not begin until summer 2009, concluding in 2011. Draft RI September 2012. A final Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study is scheduled for completion in late 2012. March 2013 ROD.
The city of Berlin established a Reuse Planning Committee in December 2007, as a result of a redevelopment grant awarded by EPA. The committee was comprised of community, economic, and cultural stakeholders from Berlin and the surrounding communities (DES was also represented). The purpose of the committee was to generate a reasonably anticipated future use for the site that would feed into the cleanup decision framework when evaluating remedial alternatives for the site. The committee findings were summarized in a December 2008 final report suggesting that the anticipated future use at the site would be light commercial combined with recreation/heritage corridor functions. Outstanding issues that the report identified as needing resolution before the site would be available for reuse include: (1) property ownership transfer from defunct corporation to viable entity; and (2) negotiated agreements with abutting property owners to allow for vehicular and foot traffic access through these properties to the site.