A moment to reconsider solid waste policies

By Greg Cunningham, Special to the BDN
Posted Jan. 30, 2012, at 3:02 p.m.

Controversy surrounding the proposed Juniper Ridge Landfill expansion and the state’s recent acquisition of the Dolby landfill have elevated the debate on proper management of Maine’s solid waste and reawakened the ire that Mainers feel toward policies that create incentives for the importation of out-of-state waste and the disposal of waste that could be reused or recycled.

Gov. Paul LePage, members of our Legislature and relevant state agencies should seize this opportunity to analyze where the solid waste policies of the past 30 years have left us and define a proper direction to take from here.

Never before has Maine been in a better position to positively influence the policies, practices and players associated with waste management. Consider these circumstances:

The two largest landfills in the state, Juniper Ridge and Crossroads, are currently seeking approvals from the state to expand their operations. A waste-to-energy facility in Biddeford is undertaking a major relicensing bid and the waste-to-energy plant in Orrington is renegotiating contracts with its supplier towns.

State government oversight of waste management is shifting from the State Planning Office to the Department of Environmental Protection. Waste-to-energy facilities are pushing legislation to re-designate them as renewable energy resources equivalent to hydropower and biomass plants. Add to all of this the fact that the state is now responsible for the operation and maintenance of another landfill in East Millinocket at a cost of at least $250,000 a year and has remaining obligations to help close numerous unsecured municipal dumps, and you have the makings of a solid waste perfect storm with no long-term plan to address it.

In the recent past, Maine has allowed events, such as the financial demise of two paper mills, to drive the direction of its solid waste policy. The negative consequences of these haphazard “policies of the moment” are many. A disproportionate amount of out-of-state waste continues to be disposed of in Maine landfills at below market costs and with no benefit accruing to Maine residents. Indeed, in 2009 we imported almost 600,000 tons of municipal solid waste, a substantial portion of which was construction and demolition debris that Massachusetts prohibits from its landfills and that cannot be legally burned in New Hampshire.

Our annual recycling rate has been stuck at just 38 percent for a decade in spite of a statewide goal of 50 percent. Nearly 40 percent of our in-state waste ends up in a landfill, even though by law land disposal is the solid waste option of last resort. Garbage trucks loaded with Maine waste drive past a Maine waste-to-energy plant to landfill their waste, while that same waste-to-energy plant is forced to import waste from out of state and buy woodchips to keep its burners fired.

We cannot afford to rush to solutions and perpetuate these flawed approaches. The confluence of events today affords the state the opportunity to immediately assess the value, role and future management of our state-owned landfills and the manner in which they interact with recycling, waste processing and waste-to-energy facilities.

The first steps in the right direction would be to deny Juniper Ridge a public benefit determination and refrain from acting on legislation to expand the Crossroads landfill until and unless the assessment identifies appropriate public roles for them in the overall state waste management regime.

Such an assessment is critical to producing policies that motivate individual and market behavior that will reduce waste disposal costs for taxpayers and retool the solid waste machine to render an efficient and effective system that reduces the amount of waste that we generate, maximizes the beneficial reuse of our waste to create compost, road surfacing and other products, increases our rate of recycling, turns waste into energy and that results in landfilled waste only after we have squeezed as much value out of that waste as we can.

Now is the time to act, not re-act.

Greg Cunningham is senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation’s Portland office.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/01/30/opinion/contributors/a-moment-to-reconsider-solid-waste-policies/ printed on December 18, 2014