April 23, 2018
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The high cost of saving Millinocket’s mills

By Sean Mahoney, Conservation Law Foundation of Maine

Good jobs in Maine is good news. To that end, the successful efforts by the LePage administration that built on the efforts of the Baldacci administration to restore good jobs in East Millinocket and Millinocket are to be commended. However, those jobs came at a significant cost to the state in the form of the state taking ownership of the Dolby landfill in East Millinocket that has taken waste from those mills for decades.

Nobody interested in the mills wanted to take the Dolby landfill for good reason — the liability associated with it is enormous. While we watch and hope for the success of the East Millinocket mill and the ultimate opening of the Millinocket mill, it’s important to fully understand all the costs associated with the Dolby landfill.

First, the state is now legally required to operate and ultimately close the Dolby landfill and those costs are, respectively, $250,000 per year and $17 million. While the Legislature appears poised to appropriate the necessary fund for operations (after the local communities recently balked at doing so), no funds have been set aside for the $17 million in closure costs, nor is there any clear plan to raise those funds.

What is clear is that the state is now the sole entity legally obligated to meet those costs and they will be borne by all Maine taxpayers, regardless of the success of the mills.

Second, acquisition of the Dolby landfill and its liabilities came at the cost of ignoring the Maine Constitution. Specifically, Article IX, Section 14 of the Constitution requires that before the state can take on any liability greater than $2 million, the Legislature must approve of the action by a two-thirds vote and then be approved in a general election by Maine voters just like the bonds for transportation, research and development or the Land for Maine’s Future Program.

This provision has been in place for two centuries and is intended to keep state government from making rash decisions and from saddling future governments with significant liabilities. However, because this provision of the Constitution was inconvenient to the timing of this particular deal, the administration did not even address the issue although raised by a number of parties, including the Conservation Law Foundation and several legislators.

Inconvenience, however, is not an acceptable reason for ignoring those constitutional requirements.

It was even more disappointing that the Attorney General’s Office, the ultimate defender of our Constitution’s integrity, finessed the issue by claiming that the legally required closure costs were not a present liability and thus didn’t trigger the Constitutional provision. This sets a poor, and potentially costly, precedent.

Third, the acquisition comes at a great cost to the state’s solid waste policy, which already had its challenges. The state first became the proud owner of a landfill when it acquired the landfill in Old Town in a previous deal to save another paper mill. In itself, that created a conflict between the state’s statutory goal of reducing, reusing or recycling waste and the bottom line goal of a landfill owner and operator to maximize revenue by increasing the amount of waste landfilled.

Now that it owns two landfills, there is a new conflict between the landfills themselves, which must compete for solid waste to generate revenue to pay for operating and closure costs. Moreover, the state and the operator of the Old Town landfill are currently seeking approval to expand the size of that landfill to accept more waste.

This either means that the administration’s claim that the Dolby landfill would be expanded to help pay for costs is highly unlikely — why would anyone pay to truck garbage to Millinocket if there is capacity in Old Town? — or it means that the application of the Old Town landfill needs to be re-examined.

Fourth and more troubling, there is no apparent strategy or vision for reducing the amount of solid waste we landfill in Maine, which would save all of us money. A majority of the waste landfilled in Maine comes from outside Maine, a fact that benefits nobody but the operators of the Old Town landfill (not the state) and the commercial landfill in Norridgewock. That defies common sense and good fiscal sense.

It’s time the administration and Legislature address this issue, particularly now that they have acquired a $17 million liability on behalf of the taxpayers of Maine.

Sean Mahoney is vice-president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation of Maine.

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