The recovered bale (Courtesy of Sprague Operating Resources)
The recovered bale (Courtesy of Sprague Operating Resources)
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One of two bales of compressed plastic waste that was dropped into Penobscot Bay at Mack Point terminal in Searsport earlier this month has been recovered intact.

Shana Hoch, spokeswoman for Sprague Operating Resources, the port operator, confirmed the discovery on December 29.

“After the divers found no evidence of the second bale in the water by our dock, we were interested in using a vessel equipped with side-scan sonar to extend the search,” Hoch said in an email. With help from Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Hoch said Sprague contacted the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to help model where the bale might have drifted based on its size and weight and the currents. “Both groups suggested that it would not have traveled very far,” she said.

When the company Sprague usually uses for side sonar was not available, Hoch said, they reached out to Maine Maritime Academy President William Brennan. On December 21 a team from the academy surveyed the area around the dock with its research vessel and side-scan sonar and found an object with the same dimensions as the bale about 1,000 feet east of the dock at Mack Point.

“It was in approximately 30 feet of water at low tide and laying on its side in about six feet of mud,” Hoch said. “The divers used ratcheting straps and slowly worked them under the edges of the bale to lift it with flotation air bags. They lifted it only enough so that they could work a net under and around the bale to help keep the bale intact.” Once the bale was completely wrapped in the net, she said, the divers used the airbags to bring the bale to neutral buoyancy so it could be lifted to a boat.

Hoch said workers weighed the bale after it had been on the dock for 30–45 minutes. “[I]t weighed almost 4,000 pounds,” she said. “The outer plastic wrap was intact, but the wrapping is not watertight.”

The bale originally weighed about 2,900 pounds and was one of 8,000 that arrived by ship in Searsport on November 28 from Northern Ireland. The compressed material, a mix of about 85% unrecyclable plastic along with cotton and linen waste, known as solid recovered fuel, or SRF, was bound for the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company waste-to-electricity incinerator in Orrington. PERC is testing the material as backup fuel to keep its incinerators running in the event that the facility runs out of local solid waste, as happened twice in the spring of 2020, according to Plant Manager Henry Lang.

The shipment that arrived on November 28 was the first load of SRF to come through Searsport and was a test for future bulk shipments.

On December 2, as bales were being loaded onto trucks, two bales fell from the crane and dropped into the water between the ship and the dock, where Hoch said they sank immediately. Unfavorable weather and water conditions prevented divers from searching the area at the time, Hoch said, and when they did search around the dock, on December 10, they could not find any evidence of the bales.

The spill went unreported until six days later, on December 8, when a man walking his dog on the beach at Sears Island, which lies directly across from the port, noticed a large amount of shredded plastic, similar to candy bar wrappers, along the high tide line. He also found chunks of still-compressed SRF. He notified Maine Department of Environmental Protection, and DEP notified Sprague. Sprague hired Clean Harbors to clean the beach starting the next day, and Sprague staff later investigated a report of plastic found on the northwest shore of Islesboro about eight miles away.

DEP opened an investigation, which is ongoing and being treated as an enforcement case, according to spokesman David Madore, who confirmed the recent recovery of the intact bale.