Feds to take emergency action to clean up defunct Caribou steam plant

9 months ago

CARIBOU, Maine — The federal government is taking emergency action to clean up a defunct steam power plant on the Aroostook River, which could speed up Caribou’s plans to revitalize the area.

Caribou has been working to clean up and remove blighted properties along the Aroostook River to make way for residential, commercial and recreational development. But to do so, it must clean up two defunct power plants that have been dormant since the early 1990s. 

This summer, the city received $900,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields program to remove asbestos and other hazardous materials from the old diesel power plant. Separately, Caribou leaders had planned to hold off on cleaning up the steam plant until more Brownfields money became available. 

But the plant’s proximity to the Aroostook River is prompting EPA officials to take action earlier and help Caribou avoid a potential environmental disaster, city leaders said at a Riverfront Renaissance Committee meeting last week. 

If successful, the EPA’s emergency action will not only prevent an environmental disaster but also speed along Caribou’s efforts to revamp the power plant sites, said Mark Draper, chair of the Caribou Riverfront Renaissance Committee.

Caribou Riverfront Renaissance Committee members (left to right) Gary Marquis, Mark Draper and Christina Kane-Gibson discuss redevelopment efforts at their latest meeting. (Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican)

“This is a big step in making the riverfront more attractive for redevelopment,” Draper said. “That [redevelopment] could involve recreational opportunities and chances for the city to incentivize private investors.”

The 12,288-square-foot steam plant in Caribou contains more than 11,000 feet of asbestos pipe insulation and 14,000 square feet of surface material with asbestos, according to a study by Caribou-based County Environmental Engineering.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act provides the EPA money from a federal “superfund” to clean up uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites as well as accidents, spills and other immediate environmental threats.

EPA officials contacted the city about emergency action after the city learned about its Brownfields award, said Caribou’s Special Project Coordinator Karen Gorman. 

The emergency project timeline and cost is still uncertain but will occur before the diesel plant is cleaned up. The project’s funding will come entirely from the federal superfund and not the city’s budget or Brownfields grant, Gorman said.

Both the diesel and steam plants were owned by local investor Jim Barressi until his death in 2019. The city acquired the buildings through unpaid taxes. 

The plants generated power until 1992 when the facilities were sold to Wisconsin Power Co. Attempts to revive the hydroelectric dam in the 2000s proved unsuccessful. The buildings have been vacant ever since.

The diesel plant contains 12,500 square feet of asbestos in the roofing, 1,600 square feet within window glaze and 600 square feet in floor tiles and mastic, with more possibly in electric wiring and piping, said Michelle Hersey, president of County Environmental Engineering.

Nearby oil storage buildings have oil drums containing thousands of gallons of petroleum waste. Though not in operation, those drums have potential to leak into the Aroostook River due to the buildings’ decaying structures, Hersey noted.

Caribou will still apply for Brownfields funding in fall 2024 to hopefully clean up the remainder of the steam plant, Gorman said.