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EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — Operating the Dolby landfill could cost the state as much as $46.5 million over the next 30 years but it could earn many more times that if it becomes a regional trash dump like Juniper Ridge, officials say.
Exactly what to do with the landfill has been something of a hot potato among the state and towns of East Millinocket and Millinocket since the Legislature voted in June, with many misgivings, to take ownership of the dump.
State ownership of the landfill was critical to the eventual purchase of the two Katahdin region paper mills, as no would-be buyer wanted the estimated $254,100 annual cost of operating the landfill and the estimated $17 million it would cost to close and cap the landfill and contain leachate from the Dolby II and Dolby III portions of it. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection provided these cost estimates in a 27-page report to legislators a month before the vote.
Legislators and state officials saw huge potential liability in landfill ownership, fearing the consequences of toxins escaping the dump, which is located about a mile from the West Branch of the Penobscot River off Route 157 in the Dolby section of East Millinocket. For decades, it was used by the two paper mills and their many previous owners.
“It’s problematic for a whole lot of reasons,” said Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono. “First, we [state government] don’t have money, but this was something the administration felt strongly enough about to undertake. It is an unfunded liability because something is going to have to be done about it eventually. Common sense would tell you that just from a buyer not wanting to assume that liability.”
Millinocket’s Town Council met in executive session on Thursday to discuss negotiations with the state over landfill operations. The council may take formal action at its Dec. 20 meeting, Town Manager Eugene Conlogue said.
“The council is continuing to review the situation and we hope to resolve it soon,” Conlogue said Friday. “We have made some significant progress.”
Jobs versus liability
No one questions the need to revitalize the mills, for decades the Katahdin region’s largest employers. All applaud new mill owner Cate Street Capital’s buying the mills in October and resuming newsprint production at the East Millinocket mill, restoring 217 jobs directly and hundreds more indirectly. Cate Street also said it plans to introduce biocoal manufacturing and employ hundreds more at the Millinocket mill by November 2012. If market conditions permit, Cate Street said it plans to restart the Millinocket paper mill, which has made glossy magazine paper.
The landfill is the cloud that came with the silver lining: the mills’ revitalization. But town and state leaders don’t seem eager to take on its costs or operations. The towns’ officials say they lack the equipment, trained personnel and budget to handle landfill operations but could help with some of it. State leaders apparently expect significant help from the towns in operating and funding the landfill, given that the towns benefited from the mills’ sale.
In buying the landfill, state legislators followed a precedent. In 2003, the state assumed ownership of what is now the Juniper Ridge landfill in order to keep the Georgia-Pacific mill in Old Town from closing down and laying off 450 workers.
Georgia-Pacific left town several years later anyway — a point raised by several skeptics of the plan for the Dolby landfill. But the mill was not scrapped and today employs about 180 people under a different owner and business model.
Though a critic of the Dolby plan, Schneider accepted the precedent and supported the mills’ revitalization. However, she said she believes the $17 million closure cost estimate is low. To be profitable, she said, the landfill would have to accept out-of-state waste. Juniper Ridge typically receives ash from garbage, which Schneider sees as problematic.
“If it is going to be a moneymaker, we don’t have the trash in Maine. That’s a no-brainer,” Schneider said. “We may be becoming known as the ‘dump state.’ That is a huge concern to me. People in Maine in general are very environmentally conscious and aware. They want the state to be clean and certainly our big tourism industries don’t want our branding to go down because we decide we are going to make Maine a landfill state.”
A useful site, with environmental issues
Cate Street subsidiary Great Northern Paper Co. LLC is paying the state to dispose of its manufacturing wastes at the landfill once a week, said George MacDonald, program manager of the Waste Management and Recycling Department of the State Planning Office, which oversees landfill operations.
The landfill has had three working components. The new GNP has been using Dolby III, a 73-acre parcel within the landfill complex that has been in operation since 1984. It consists of 17 waste cells each rated to carry a year’s worth of mill wastes, including leftover wood wastes, wastewater sludge and chemicals from the mill’s wood room and yard, plus wood ash and general rubbish. Dolby III has a few more years of life left to it, according to an annual status report on the landfill the DEP compiled in 2010.
Dolby II, a 75-acre parcel, was licensed in 1978 and ran from 1979 to 1987 and reopened from 1996 to 1999. A 23-acre segment, Dolby I ran from 1975 to 1981. Both contain mill waste.
Maine Department of Environmental Protection officials don’t see any immediate hazards, but they are concerned with the large amount of leachate — fluid generated when rainwater and snowmelt infiltrate waste — escaping the landfill, said Richard Heath, a senior environmental hydrogeologist for the DEP.
Some leachate contains several elements — bicarbonates, calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium — that get into the nearby Partridge Brook Flowage at levels beyond those allowed by federal and state solid-waste standards, he said.
Water from the Partridge Brook Flowage eventually gets into the Penobscot River, but by then the pollutants are diluted enough to have a negligible environmental impact, Heath said.
DEP scientists also see deteriorating groundwater quality at some routine monitoring wells on the property, including levels of arsenic that are as much as 30 times greater than allowed in federal drinking water standards, Heath said.
“I would not say it is a red alert. The leachate that is released into the environment is a small portion of the volume of water that goes through that watershed,” Heath said. “It is a concern, however. This has to be managed appropriately. We do see an environmental impact, but not a catastrophic impact at this point.”
The monitoring is sufficient, Heath said.
$46 million ‘the cost of doing business’
In the two months since the state became the landfill’s owner, State Planning Office workers have been getting up to speed on the landfill’s requirements. That included having the landfill’s berm, diversion ditch, leachate lagoon, 3.1-mile pipeline to the East Millinocket wastewater treatment plant and gravel roads cleaned and repaired, MacDonald said.
A state worker monitors leachate flow daily, MacDonald said.
Cleaning up and closing the landfill and permanently containing its leachate would cost $17 million paid over 30 years with a bond, according to a DEP report to the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, which studied the issue before the Legislature voted to assume ownership of the mill.
Owning and operating the landfill is a big cost, but Conlogue disputes the DEP’s cleanup and operational cost estimates, saying he felt they were very high.
He and MacDonald said they see a potential revenue generator for the state in an unused 42-acre portion of the landfill called the Valley Fill. It represents about 4 million cubic yards of virgin landfill space.
If that were made operational as a commercial landfill, it would cost roughly $31.9 million, while closing Dolby III would cost $14.6 million ― approximately $46.5 million in total, according to DEP estimates. However, that money would be more than offset by tipping fees charged to landfill users, MacDonald and Conlogue said.
“If that happens, then the $46 million becomes the cost of doing business,” Conlogue said, “and the revenues from that business would far exceed the $46 million. And the excess money would be used by the state.”
Conlogue said that with conservative estimates based on typical tipping fees, he could see the landfill generating more than $250 million over the years.
“If you could create a revenue stream with it, it becomes a way to pay for the landfill without using taxpayer money,” he said.
Is there a need?
But is there a need for another Juniper Ridge-type landfill? Not immediately, MacDonald said. The state-owned Juniper Ridge facility in Old Town has about seven years’ capacity left to it, while the privately owned facility in Norridgewock has about 12, he said.
The municipal and regional landfills around the state have an average of about seven or eight years of useful life left in them, said Don Meagher, manager of planning and development for Casella Waste Systems, which operates Juniper Ridge for the state.
Casella is in the early stages of its application for a vertical expansion of the Juniper site. Meagher expects that those municipal and regional landfill operators not already doing the same will soon start.
“It generally is a good thing in terms of long-range planning and investment decision-making to have long-term capacity to plan on. Having only seven or eight years remaining is cutting it a little close,” Meagher said Thursday.
Those time estimates are disputed. Other officials at Casella have said that Juniper Ridge will fill in five years and that the entirety of Maine’s landfill space is expected to be filled within the decade.
A key question legislators would have to answer, Meagher said, is which would be more efficient and economical — creating another regional landfill in Dolby or allowing existing landfills elsewhere to be repermitted?
Another regional landfill in the state would increase competition among landfill operators and could reduce tipping fees statewide, but might not be worth the remediation and operational costs, Meagher said.
“Hard to say what market opportunity there really is for [a new landfill] to serve the needs currently being served by other landfills, but that may be something somebody is looking at as an option,” he said.
Answering those questions will take time and study, Schneider said, and voters, legislators and state and local officials need to consider the questions carefully.
“Monetarily I think it will work out in the end,” Schneider said.
“Unfortunately, we face these dilemmas,” she added. “The question is: Was it worth it? And we won’t know this. Only time will tell.”