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Wayne Nickerson caught a blue lobster off Plymouth on Monday. –Photo courtesy Jan Nickerson

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Maine briefed in 2010 about contaminated lobster
Giant Lobster

PORTLAND, Maine —State officials were briefed about high levels of mercury contamination in lobsters caught around the mouth of the Penobscot River more than three years before the Department of Marine Resources shut the area down for fishing this week, according to a group of scientists involved in studying the contamination.

Preliminary results from the federally mandated study carried out as part of a lawsuit against a chemical company blamed for dumping tons of mercury into the river were presented to state officials in September 2010, according to three of the scientists.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources, which shut down the contaminated area for fishing this week, said it didn’t learn of the contamination until November 2013.

Chris Whipple, a member of the Penobscot River Mercury Study Panel, said that officials from the Maine Department of Marine Resources, Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife were among those invited to the presentation.

Drew Bodaly, the study’s project leader, and biologist Dianne Kopec said they recalled seeing “numerous” Maine state officials at the meeting in Portland.

“They were somewhat aware of what we were doing,” said Whipple, who works for the environmental consulting firm Environ International Corporation, specializing in radioactive waste, air pollutants and mercury. “I don’t think it’s accurate to say the (final) report was a total surprise to them.”

Jeff Nichols, a spokesman for the state Department of Marine Resources, said the department first heard of the research in November 2013, when it was brought to their attention by Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

The Department of Marine Resources then asked state toxicologist Andrew Smith from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to analyze the study’s data and decided to close the area based on his findings, Nichols said.

“It is important to note too that the state isn’t party to this litigation,” said DMR spokesman Jeff Nichols. “When we found out about it (the study), we took immediate action and took this conservative measure.”

Details from the study have been made publicly available through court filings shortly after each phase of the project was presented in court in 2007, 2009 and 2013.

“When a report was completed we submitted it to the court, the court reviewed it, and after a short period of time it was docketed, usually within a month,” Kopec said.

Study results from 2009 are posted on the state Department of Environmental Protection’s website, although it’s unclear when it was actually posted.

The slow dissemination of the findings was first reported by the Portland Press Herald.

The federally mandated study was carried out as part of a lawsuit involving the now-closed HoltraChem Manufacturing Co. plant in Orrington.

The results prompted the Maine Department of Marine Resources this week to close the 7 square miles at the mouth of Penobscot to lobster and crab fishing starting Saturday for at least two years as other tests are conducted.

Whipple said that part of Maine’s slow reaction might have come from court proceedings, which prevented researchers from publishing their results or presenting their research without court permission.

He said that the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife closed areas to duck hunting because of the mercury contamination documented by the study a year ago.