The Maine State Planning Office apparently kept quiet for nearly two years changes to a contract that could allow thousands of tons of out-of-state waste to be dumped into the state-owned Juniper Ridge landfill.
News of the hush-hush deal has angered civic leaders in the Old Town area and fueled long-standing allegations among some residents that state officials are mismanaging the landfill.
“In my view, the State Planning Office still doesn’t take full responsibility for running its own landfill,” Rep. Bob Duchesne, a Hudson Democrat who is heavily involved with waste issues, said Thursday. “You cannot maintain the public trust and do things in secret.”
Duchesne and others are accusing the planning office of keeping secret a November 2006 amendment to a contract with Casella Waste Management, the private firm that operates Juniper Ridge. Casella also has a contract to supply construction and demolition debris, or CDD, to the Old Town mill as fuel for the facility’s biomass boiler.
The controversial 2006 change would allow Casella to deposit up to 20,000 tons of unprocessed CDD into Juniper Ridge annually beginning in 2009 after the company’s Pine Tree landfill in Hampden is closed.
Casella and state planning officials said the deposits would be allowed only when a proposed CDD processing facility in Westbrook is closed for maintenance or repair. And state planning officials point out that the contract was renegotiated as part of the Baldacci administration’s effort to re-open the shuttered Georgia-Pacific Corp. mill in Old Town under a new firm, Red Shield Environmental.
Red Shield, in turn, planned to burn CDD supplied by Casella as part of its long-term plan to convert the pulp mill into an ethanol facility. The company struggled amid rising costs, however, and the Old Town plant was sold last week to a new owner.
But critics contend the provision could allow Casella to dump up to 40 million pounds of out-of-state CDD at Juniper Ridge, which currently cannot accept non-Maine trash.
Last week, Casella officials sought to curtail the controversy by withdrawing a request to modify the company’s permit with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Without that revised permit, Casella would be prohibited from depositing the CDD “by-pass” at Juniper Ridge.
Casella’s withdrawal has done little to stem anger with the State Planning Office, however.
During a meeting held last week in Old Town, members of a landfill advisory committee grilled state planning director Martha Freeman on why they were never informed about the contract changes.
The amendments came to light only after local residents received copies of the revised contract through Freedom of Information requests. The residents, who are part of the anti-landfill group We the People, then passed the information along to the advisory committee and local lawmakers.
“This has been going on for two years, and the committee that is supposed to represent the public’s interest has been kept in the dark on these agreements,” said John Banks, who represents Indian Island on the Juniper Ridge Landfill Advisory Committee.
“How can we fulfill our statutory requirement to represent the public’s interest when you’re not keeping this committee informed about what is going on in the landfill?” Banks asked, according to a video recording of the meeting provided by the Orono Town Office.
Freeman said repeatedly during last week’s gathering as well as in a subsequent interview that her office has multiple obligations regarding the landfill.
Those obligations were compounded in November 2006 by the effort to bring jobs back to the former Georgia-Pacific mill.
Freeman, who signed the 2006 agreement on behalf of the Baldacci administration, said she appreciated the perspectives of those gathered at the meeting. But the planning office had to balance its obligations to manage the day-to-day operations of the landfill, which includes negotiating with Casella, and seal a deal with Red Shield and Casella to keep jobs in the area, she said.
Freeman said she believes the amended agreement was “absolutely within” the authority of the executive branch to negotiate and that it was done legally.
“All I can say is at that time, in the context of what was going on … I felt that the amendment was an appropriate amendment in the public interest,” Freeman said.
Freeman also said she knew that Casella would have to seek revisions to the company’s DEP permit, which would trigger a more public review of the contract. “This seems to me to be the right time to be talking about this,” Freeman told the crowd.
That explanation did not sit well with some in the audience, however.
“This is not the right time at all,” said Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono. “This is many years too late. And to find out in the way that I did, after many citizens already knew, is just incredibly bad form and unacceptable.”
Don Meagher, manager of planning and development for Casella, said the company sought the changes because the draft license for the Westbrook processing facility did not permit stock-piling of CDD. Otherwise, the incoming trucks loaded down with CDD would have had no where to go.
DEP Commissioner David Littell said Thursday that he was not made aware of the changes to Casella’s agreement until this past summer. Littell said there is no obligation for agencies to share such information.
Littell said the amendment to Casella’s contract with the State Planning Office remains in effect. However, the company would have to revise its permit with the DEP before dumping unprocessed, bypass CDD into the Old Town landfill, he said.
Advisory committee chairman Peter Dufour said Thursday he believes that the audience members at last week’s meeting made their point that, in the future, they want to be kept better-informed.
Meanwhile, Duchesne is petitioning for new rules to require that the planning office hold public hearings whenever the Juniper Ridge landfill contract is modified or if operational changes would affect the local community.