The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reached a $5.7 million settlement with the owners of a former tannery in South Paris that began leaching toxins into the Little Androscoggin River in 2000.

On Wednesday, Nebraska-based ConAgra Grocery Products Company, LLC agreed to reimburse the EPA for cleanup costs at the former A.C. Lawrence Leather Co. sludge lagoon site, ending a three-year legal battle on who should pay for the removal of 33,000 tons of soil contaminated with chromium and lead.

According to Sun Journal records, the tannery once stood on the opposite bank of the river beside Pine Street, a site where it deposited filtered wastes generated from processing and dyeing hides.

The tannery represented the era of strong manufacturing in the region, when local communities thrived from the support of mills and shops. When the tannery closed in 1985, around 160 people lost their jobs, according to Sun Journal archives.

The lagoons along Oxford Street were built from sometime prior to 1952 until 1973-1974, when the company began using the town’s treatment facilities.

At the time, the sludge lagoons were buried under gravel. In 2000, town officials received a complaint regarding “green ooze” on the bank of the Little Androscoggin River next to the site.

According to a news release from the EPA, following investigations it was determined that sludge remained in the nearby lagoons, and sampling showed the site was contaminated with chromium sludge from approximately 2½ to 14 feet below ground.

In 2007, the EPA completed a yearlong cleanup effort that initial government estimates pegged at $4 million. This week, the EPA estimated that figure had risen to $5 million.

“This settlement shows that the ‘polluter pays’ principle is alive and well,” Curt Spalding, regional administrator of EPA’s New England office in Boston said.

Road access to one of the sites is blocked by large boulders, and high, green grass and wildflowers blanket the property. The town is owed an unknown amount in back taxes; yet, since it’s closure, the town has waived its right to foreclose on the property, Town Manager Amy Bernard said.

ConAgra was alleged to be the successor of the leather company “through a series of complex corporate transactions.”

The settlement is subject to a public comment period, and must be approved by the U.S. District Court before it can become final.

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