Trash costs to pile up at PERC

Posted Jan. 18, 2011, at 5:41 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 02, 2011, at 12:21 p.m.

WINSLOW, Maine – When it comes to municipal rubbish disposal for many communities in central Maine, there’s bad news and good news.

The bad news: The cost of waste disposal at the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. in Orrington is slated to increase dramatically, after decades of the same low rate.

The good news: There’s time to prepare. The increases will take effect this year and increase incrementally during the next seven years.

In Winslow, the town this year will see its trash disposal expenses go up $3,300. Now, Winslow’s annual cost is about $239,000 to dispose of a little more than 3,000 tons of rubbish.

By the year 2017, however, Winslow’s total expenses are set to nearly double: increasing by $223,000.

“We should be looking at our options to reduce our tonnage,” Town Manager Michael Heavener said. “The town has been enjoying a $45 per-ton tipping fee.”

Members of the advisory Waterville-Winslow Solid Waste Corp., along with officials from other communities, will begin meeting in the coming year or so to examine ways of reducing their waste and other alternatives.

Known as the PERC facility, the Orrington company started nearly 30 years ago as an experiment in burning trash and converting the resulting energy into electricity.

Winslow resident Elery Keene, who at the time was executive director of the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments, was among those involved in negotiating the initial contract between the company and many central Maine municipalities. Keene and others established the nine-member Municipal Review Committee, a board that would oversee the PERC operation.

Eventually, the contract stipulated that profits from the PERC facility would be divided evenly three ways: to the company owners, Bangor Hydro, and the municipalities delivering rubbish. Municipalities saw those profits in the form of rebates applied to their waste disposal expenses.

Also part of the deal: The communities of the Municipal Review Committee were able to purchase stock in Bangor Hydro, and they sold it later after it had doubled in price.

That, combined with the profit-sharing rebates, has led to a low cost of $45 per ton for more than 100 “charter municipalities” for about two decades, according to Keene, who is a longtime board member of Municipal Review Committee. Other communities that joined later pay $54 per ton.

The actual tipping fee is about $75 per ton. Now, the reserve cash from the Municipal Review Committee is dwindling and the 30-year contract expires in 2018.

“We don’t want to spend all the money and have nothing left when 2018 comes,” Keene said.

As a result, the Municipal Review Committee has adopted a new fee schedule to raise $10 million to $14 million in additional cash reserves during the next seven years. The expense to municipalities increase by $1 per ton this year. Another $2 per ton is added in 2012; $3 in 2013; and $4 each year after that until 2017, when communities are paying a target of $67 per ton.

Those gradual increases are meant to avoid a one-year spike of 75 percent to 125 percent in disposal costs, according to a Municipal Review Committee memo.

Among the local communities who are members of the Municipal Review Committee are China, Benton, Fairfield, Oakland, Unity, Vassalboro, Waterville and Winslow. Many communities in Somerset County use Waste Management in Norridgewock, which produces energy through methane gas from the trash.

Keene said many options can be explored, such as re-negotiating a new contract with the PERC facility, or perhaps even exercising the option of buying the trash plant outright.

One big concern will be the cost of delivering rubbish over a long distance, he said.

“As diesel fuel for trucks increases in price, we have to be more concerned about how we haul the garbage,” Keene said. “We’d like to continue to burn it, because producing electricity is better than just putting it in the ground in a landfill.”

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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