Warren's not-so-great wallMore than a decade later, gun range problems still unresolved
Warren — From the side of Route 90, nothing seems amiss. The building is tired, forgotten, the grass-tufted hillocks surrounding it pale from winter's first bite. For many in the Midcoast, it's just another anonymous spot to pass by on the way to somewhere else.
Yet just behind the abandoned building, near an overgrown pickup truck that hasn't seen a road in more than 10 years, the first bales of polyester fiber waste lie in wait. They sit in a low, snow-dusted pyramid, a relic of order from a bygone era.
The true scope of the wreckage becomes clear only once the main road is lost to sight. If that first heap is a pyramid, these are veritable mountains, a chain of Himalayan summits that straggle across the horizon in every direction.
This is the legacy of the Steamship Navigation Company, and of a dream of a rifle range that became a legal and environmental nightmare.
Whether the two frontrunners for ridding this land of its dangerous burden — Dragon Cement and the Mid Coast Solid Waste Corporation — can achieve any progress in 2013 remains to be seen. For now, there is only the waste, and the snow, and silence.
Background of the situation
The fate of the site and its potentially dangerous contents has been accumulating since 1998, when Randall and Kathleen Dunican purchased the roughly 70-acre property under the banner of the Steamship Navigation Company in order to turn it into an outfitter store and rifle range.
The Steamship Navigation Company accepted approximately 175,000 cubic yards of polyester fiber scraps from Gates Formed-Fibre Products, Inc., for which they were paid an estimated $1 million. According to Warren town attorney Paul Gibbons, the fiber material is typically used as linings for the trunks of motor vehicles.
Through their companies, the Dunicans continued investing in new properties, such as the Mt. Abram Ski Resort, but due to a legal kerfuffle regarding outstanding loans with Camden National Bank their various properties were foreclosed upon.
Litigation ensued from 2001-2010, at which point the town of Warren and the state Department of Environmental Protection reclaimed a sum of $545,525, part of a $1.5 million settlement the Steamship Navigation Company reclaimed from Camden National Bank as a result of their foreclosure actions.
Gibbons said the town is "lucky" Steamship Navigation won its judgment against Camden National Bank, since the debtors have no other major funds available.
“We could sue them, but there’s nothing there, there’s no assets there," Gibbons said, adding that the town is attempting to pursue the “best available options” to resolve the site.
The half-million dollars reserved for site cleanup has been held by the DEP since 2010 while they investigate options for disposal of the waste materials.
"You have to look at it in the sense that the money really belongs to the property owner," Gibbons said, "and that’s why the DEP cannot use it for something else.”
Liability in limbo
According to documents listed on the Maine Department of the Secretary of State website, all three of the Dunicans' businesses involved in the Warren situation — RD Outfitters, Steamship Navigation Company and Schooner Investments, Inc. — are currently either administratively suspended or dissolved.
However, according to Gibbons, "When you don’t pay your administrative fees, it doesn’t mean you’re not liable — but there’s just nothing there."
“To me it’s almost academic who owns it as long as we don’t own it," Gibbons added.
Now-retired Warren Town Manager Grant Watmough estimated in 2008 that there was roughly $18,000 in property taxes owed on the property, but the town has annually voted not to foreclose on the property due to liability risks if the fiber material was to catch on fire.
"When it came time...for taxes," Gibbons said, "I just said, ‘You’ll be crazy to take ownership of this property because if there’s ever a fire there, I mean, someone would be suing you. Whether you’d be liable or not I don’t know, but they’ll be suing you, and it could be awful, and why should you take the risk when you didn’t do anything? You could help — we’re trying desperately to make it go away, the risk, but we don’t have to assume the risk.”
'It's like liquid lava'
According to Gibbons, the polyester fiber material, which remains on the property, is not hazardous in its everyday state.
If so, Gibbons said, the DEP could have easily obtained funds to clean up the Warren site, which he compares the waste fiber to a two-mile high pile of dry hay: “It’s hazardous because it could start a fire, but it’s not hazardous because it can hurt you."
The polyester fiber scraps were initially compressed into cubic bales, but many have since disintegrated or broken, complicating both the cleanup process and the fire risk.
Gibbons said the material does not ignite easily, but that if it did catch fire, it could cause a disaster.
“It melts, it’s like liquid lava,” Gibbons said.
Once the polyester fiber melts into surrounding material and then the ground, Gibbons said, it can heat up plant root systems and cause fires across distances. The conflagration would travel underground in the manner of a peat fire, "making it almost like a hidden octopus.”
Warren Fire Chief Ed Grinnell said there's "not much of anything for water” in the area except what firefighters are able to bring.
According to Grinnell, water would not be able to penetrate a polyester fiber fire unless excavators cut open the melted debris. Instead, Grinnell and Gibbons said, firefighters would need to use fire-fighting foam to suffocate the blaze.
Grinnell said that the 70 to 80 gallons of the foam Warren Fire Department has on hand is not enough.
In the event of a serious conflagration, Grinnell said, additional foam would have to be brought in by a crash truck — a firefighting vehicle designed to transport large amounts of fire suppressants — or flown in from Bangor.
Gibbons said that a primary risk from a fire would be the "caustic smoke," which would require firefighters to use oxygen tanks in order to approach the affected region.
The fire chief said there is not much that can be done to prepare personnel for such a crisis, but Gibbons estimates that five or six area fire departments would come to Warren's aid.
"All of those people would be in great jeopardy if [a fire] ever happened," Gibbons said.
Gibbons said the current Warren Board of Selectmen is "aggressive” in wanting to clean up the former shooting range. As such, the DEP and the town are exploring options for disposal of the waste polyester materials.
The most likely option, according to Gibbons and DEP environmental specialist Mike Parker, would involve Thomaston cement manufacturers Dragon Cement and Concrete.
Dragon Cement Plant Manager Ray DeGrass estimates that the polyester fiber waste at the Warren site could provide fuel for Dragon Cement for two to three years.
However, since Dragon does not wish to become a storage facility, DeGrass said, the company would be interested in chipping the polyester fiber on-site and subsequently transporting the waste to the Thomaston facility to be burned.
According to DeGrass, the chipping process will ensure that the material burns evenly and is easier to control. The fiber waste would be exposed to temperatures of more than 2000 degrees in Dragon Cement's kiln, ensuring that it would be "immediately consumed."
DeGrass said that he is “99 percent sure” Dragon Cement can meet environmental standards, and that data from test burns of polyester fiber demonstrated "nothing adverse that we could see."
Although DeGrass said that the DEP considers Dragon the best solution to the problem, he added that the company does not currently possess the infrastructure to support such a venture.
"It’s really down to a matter of economics," DeGrass said, citing the recent economic recession as a hindrance to the venture.
DeGrass said that Dragon Cement is attempting to put together a capital project with its parent branch in Spain in order to obtain money to purchase and install processing equipment.
“We’re progressing. It’s slow. Hopefully something will happen in 2013," DeGrass said.
According to Gibbons, DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho is in “last throes” of trying to find a solution with Dragon Products.
If the parties cannot strike a mutually agreeable solution, Gibbons said, the town of Warren will find “some other avenue, but we have to start cleaning it up.”
A second option for disposal would involve using the polyester waste to fill a quarry near the Camden/Rockport town line, which is owned by the Mid Coast Solid Waste Corporation.
Manager Jim Guerra said the transfer station's consent agreement is reaching a point where action must be taken, and that the polyester waste would help fill and close the quarry. Guerra said that the Mid Coast Solid Waste Corporation is interested in utilizing the material "in as much as it helps solve a problem."
A third — and more contentious — alternative would be to resume turning the site into a rifle range by constructing waste fiber berms, covering them with earth, and seeding the ground.
According to Gibbons, “It would be the most expensive rifle range in the world. Having done it, you wouldn’t possibly make any money...It would be like putting a $50,000 saddle on a $100 horse. I mean, it just isn’t going to work.”
Hope resident Michael Mank, the owner and lead instructor of driving school Motorcycles in Motion, disagrees with Gibbons' assessment. During a July 2012 town meeting, Mank voiced interest in using private resources to turn the site back into a rifle range or other community-friendly site.
Mank said in December that he is "definitely" still interested in investigating options for the property, but that town officials "haven't really informed us much of anything" since his initial presentation.
Chance for change in 2013
More than a decade after the Steamship Navigation Company's financial woes began, the former Warren shooting range remains mired in both legal red tape and nearly 200,000 pounds of waste.
Gibbons remains confident that with the $545,525 set aside to clean up the site, the DEP and the town of Warren will “come up with some solution to get this thing cleaned up.”
However, despite a Nov. 8 letter in which the DEP expressed ambitions to "set a final plan in motion before the end of 2012," both further action and the promised update to the Warren Board of Selectmen have failed to materialize.
The town of Warren hasn't decided what will be done with the site once the polyester fiber waste situation is resolved.
“We’ll decide that when we get there," Gibbons said. "We have to clean it up first.”
Courier Publications reporter Bane Okholm can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 125 or by email at email@example.com.