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Digging deeper into the Sylvania contamination

By Beth A. Birmingham | Mar 02, 2017
Photo by: Beth A. Birmingham Waldoboro Selectman Bob Butler, left, and task force member Michael Laing, pore over reams of reports dealing with the former Osram-Sylvania remediation at the Department of Environmental Protection Feb. 28.

Waldoboro — The town of Waldoboro, through a special task force, is investigating the possibility that workers at the former Osram-Sylvania plant on Friendship Road may have had adverse health effects from exposure to toxic substances there. The task force is also looking into present-day environmental ramifications of activity on the site.

"Uncovering the extent and nature of the pollution over the last 65 years and what has been done thus far to protect human health and the environment, especially the Medomak estuary, is of considerable interest," resident and task force member Michael Laing said.

He and Selectman Robert Butler recommended the formation of the task force to investigate the future potential of the 39-plus-acre parcel of land now owned by LEDVANCE LLC.

Knowing the piece of prime real estate is contaminated with "volatile organic compounds" caused by Sylvania's disposal of hazardous materials over the course of decades, and seeing no end in sight to the remediation efforts, the pair headed to Augusta Feb. 28 to search the archives of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

In June 1988, GTE-Sylvania entered into an agreement with DEP to remove evident contaminants from the groundwater and soil on the site, and also to clean chemical storage facilities located on the site.

The company consented to the enforcement, but did not agree with the findings. The report said hazardous wastes are present at the site and discharge creates a danger to the public health, welfare and environment.

The GTE facility in Waldoboro manufactured filaments for light bulbs, starters for fluorescent lights, circuit breakers and other control devices.

The 1988 report noted that, according to company officials, prior to 1976 most of the waste materials were disposed of at the site. "Spent acids were discharged through a bed of crushed limestone to a brook passing through the site. Oils and solvents were often mixed together and disposed of at the site in a variety of ways, including burning and applying it as a dust suppressant on gravel parking lots at the facility."

Site diagrams indicate the presence of lagoons and landfills where hazardous wastes were deposited as well.

DEP also noted the site borders the Medomak River and slopes toward it, and approximately half the town's drinking water was supplied by a groundwater well a third of a mile east of the site. Several private residential drinking water wells currently in use are within 1,000 feet of the site.

"There was heavy arsenic pollution reported at the site in the 1988 order, but in 2006 arsenic monitoring was terminated by permit. What happened?" Laing wondered.

As part of the agreement, GTE installed a groundwater extraction system by which the contaminated water goes up through a tower and the water is turned into a mist. The volatile organic compounds are stripped from the water. In its gaseous state, those compounds (now air) go through a carbon filter, which is shipped out as hazardous waste.

In July 1990, DEP reported that due to the investigation and remedial activities undertaken at this site by the responsible parties, the state recommended no further federal action at that time.

A full 11 years later, and every five years since, DEP issued the site owner permits to operate a pollutant discharge elimination system and waste discharge license. These allow the former Osram-Sylvania remediation to continue.

That means LEDVANCE is authorized to discharge up to 10,000 gallons per day of treated groundwater from the remediation system into the Medomak River.

"We have not yet found any documents to the contrary," Laing said regarding whether or not the company has abided by DEP regulations in the remediation.

LEDVANCE is a "strongly-capitalized U.S. corporation with domestic assets and manufacturing facilities supplying traditional lighting, LED and other related products," according to a letter dated Jan. 11 from LEDVANCE's Vice President Andrew Martin.

Martin was responding to Laing's letter of inquiry dated Dec. 15, 2016, regarding the pending sale of LEDVANCE to MLS Co. Inc., a Chinese corporation.

In a letter to Olaf Berlien, chairman of the managing board of Osram, which bought the plant from GTE, Laing expressed his continued concern about the contamination on the site, as well as the company's plans for continued remediation.

According to Laing's letter, the industrial site is "hazardous due to the continuous air release of tetrachloroethene from an 'air stripping' remediation system" which is older technology, and waste water from the system flows directly into the upper Medomak River estuary -- where "some of the most productive fisheries" are.

LEDVANCE assumed responsibility for addressing environmental matters arising from the property when it became the owner and operator July 1, 2016.

In a Feb. 24 statement to the Waldoboro Board of Selectmen and the news media, Martin said LEDVANCE does not expect any change in the parent ownership of its company to affect its ability to continue to honor its environmental or other obligations.

Furthermore, Martin said, "At the appropriate time, we would be pleased to provide additional information. Based on the issues that have been raised, there are a number of outstanding questions which we will be able to address."

The company paid $8,991 in property taxes to the town of Waldoboro last year.

Although there have been no documented health or environmental ramifications, Laing said many of the hundreds of people who worked at the plant over the years were possibly exposed to a number of hazardous substances in their workplace.

A June 7, 1988, article in the Los Angeles Times reported that Massachusetts state health officials began an investigation into fears by managers and employees at a GTE plant of "a high rate of cancer among workers."

The report stated "the agency will try to determine whether seven diagnosed cases of cancer in the last 18 months at the GTE-Sylvania plant are related to materials used there."

The study was requested by plant managers "after employees expressed concern about the seven diagnosed cancer cases that have already resulted in five deaths."

Also, at the request of employees at the GTE-Sylvania plant in Standish in June 1980, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health conducted an environmental and medical survey to investigate possible health hazards from copper exposures resulting from the manufacture of small electrical components.

"The authors conclude that no significant exposure to copper exists but that unacceptably high concentration of lead were detected and resulted in elevated blood lead in workers. They recommended that the health hazard from lead be reduced through engineering controls, improved ventilation, substitution of the leaded glass used, and initiation of a program to monitor blood lead concentrations in workers."

In a letter Butler and his wife, Sally, wrote in September 2011 to the project manager of the DEP's Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management, they stated they had learned of a former employee at Osram-Sylvania in Waldoboro "who was instructed to bury drums under the parking lot" at the facility.

They further stated that although it was never divulged what was in the drums, shortly after that "Osram took steps to pave the parking lot." They recommended the parking lot be thoroughly examined. To date, that has not been done.

Laing said there remain a lot of facts to assemble in looking over the whole lifespan of site operations.

GTE-Sylvania went into business in Waldoboro in 1950, initially producing fluorescent starters and later manufacturing the tiny filaments that produce light inside light bulbs, as well as other devices and components. At one point more than 600 people were employed at the plant. Production ceased in 2005, putting 134 people out of work. The buildings were demolished in September 2008.

"We are determined to both make this property a productive asset and to permanently protect the Medomak estuary," Laing said. "It is too important to our communities to remain in limbo."

The task force held its first meeting March 1.

Courier Publications reporter Beth A. Birmingham can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 125 or via email at bbirmingham@villagesoup.com.

One of several hundred layouts found in the archives at DEP dealing with the ongoing remediation of contaminants at the former Osram-Syvania plant in Waldoboro. (Photo by: Beth A. Birmingham)
Comments (4)
Posted by: Wayne Keiderling | Mar 03, 2017 09:06

I questioned why a very large powerful company such as sylvania would have a plant in a small relatively remote town.

Could it have been the good work ethic of the local people . OR DID THEY DECIDE THE ORDINANCES OR ENFORCEMENT WAS LAX OR BOTH.



Posted by: Ragna Weaver | Mar 03, 2017 07:45

I worked there for  10 years. We never knew this was how the chemicals were discharged. Not much regard for their workers. I imagine the workers,  are paying the price now for their disregard for their trusted employees



Posted by: Maggie Trout | Mar 02, 2017 15:41

Excellent report.



Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Mar 02, 2017 15:19

Sounds to me that the estuary is already contaminated so why try now to clean up years of discharge? How many people got Cancer from this work-place? Now we know why jobs are shipped over seas where there is no oversight for the workers health.



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