June 25, 2018
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Trash, Bangor and the PERC bump in the road

By Geoff Gratwick, Special to the BDN

In an ironic twist, the PERC plant’s ongoing need for a large volume of trash is derailing Bangor’s plan to increase recycling.

In 1988, the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company waste-to-energy plant in Orrington opened to deal with the crisis of rapidly filling and closing landfills. Its mission was to provide reasonably priced, environmentally responsible waste disposal and support the “reduce, reuse, recycle” goals.

Bangor, along with 86 other equity charter and 100 associate communities in Eastern and Northern Maine, own 24 percent of PERC. Private partners from Minneapolis, Minn., own the remaining shares.

Participating communities agreed to provide a guaranteed annual tonnage, or GAT, of municipal solid waste as an energy source for PERC’s electrical generators. The Legislature mandated that Bangor Hydro/Emera buy this electricity at a premium (10 to 14 cents per KW as opposed to the market price of 3 to 4 cents per KW), in effect subsidizing solid waste disposal through higher electrical rates.

For the last 23 years, Bangor residents have benefited from solid waste disposal rates that are about half of market rates. Our favorable contract continues until 2018 at which point this electrical subsidy ends. If it is to remain open, PERC will then have to charge Bangor and other communities higher tipping fees to incinerate their waste as there will be significantly less income generated from electrical production.

For the last four years, Bangor has been exploring ways to decrease its volume of solid waste for both environmental reasons and in preparation for 2018. In the U.S. as well as throughout Europe, single stream/pay-as-you-throw programs are gaining momentum. The city was readying itself to move in this direction.

In 2010, for the first time, Bangor and a number of other towns did not deliver enough waste to meet their tonnage guarantee and had to pay a penalty. This resulted in part from improved recycling but also from the current recession. For example, Brewer paid $5,960 because of its new pay-as-you-throw program. Bangor, which generates a volume four times that of Brewer, paid $3,512 for another reason — the recession cut consumption and hence trash.

These penalties, while real, are small in comparison to the $3.2 million that Bangor spends on all aspects of municipal solid waste.

But we now have new projections for the GAT penalty should Bangor succeed in decreasing its waste by 40 percent with a single stream/pay-as-you-throw program. While the economic assumptions behind these projections are more art than science and are based on flat growth over the next several years, the penalty would no longer be $3,500 per year, but rather $200,000 to $400,000 per year. This is what Bangor would have to pay PERC to buy wood chips or solid waste for its generators.

PERC has an ironclad contract with Bangor Hydro/Emera and must deliver 162,000 megawatts of electricity per year. Bangor has a similar contract with PERC to deliver 30,500 tons of solid waste. We are stuck in a tangled web of obligations.

PERC’s municipal and corporate partners are beginning to plan for 2018. What a new financial arrangement will look like without the electrical subsidy is unclear.

Our local communities need PERC. It has provided a cost-effective service and decreased the volume of solid waste going to local landfills by 90 percent. PERC needs our local communities. Without their trash, PERC’s $35 million plant does not have a guaranteed source of fuel.

As we approach the end of the PERC contract in 2018, we must begin now to plan for a different future, one in which disposal costs will increase dramatically unless a new model can be found, one which emphasizes waste reduction and fairly allocates costs to those who generate waste. The GAT penalty has only postponed change.

The law of unintended consequences bedevils both personal and governmental decisions. The very success of the PERC plant is now undercutting the “reduce, reuse and recycle” credo. Our good intentions have returned to bite us. In spite of the complexity of the decisions before us we need to keep a simple reality in mind: soon we will not be able to afford the status quo and will need a new system to help us create less trash.

Geoff Gratwick is a Bangor city councilor.

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