OLD TOWN, Maine — Casella Waste Systems Inc., the Vermont-based company that operates the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill, is facing opposition on two fronts in the wake of January’s Maine Department of Environmental Protection endorsement of a partial expansion of the facility.
On one front stands a group of landfill opponents waiting for the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee to consider conducting a review of Casella’s operations after they submitted a letter outlining their complaints. That letter included signatures from 10 legislators, including Rep. Adam Goode, D-Bangor, Tribal Rep. Wayne Mitchell of Indian Island, and Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford.
On the other front, Ed Spencer of Old Town awaits his chance to speak before the Board of Environmental Protection after BEP Chairwoman Susan Lessard decided that, because he lives close to the landfill, he has standing to appeal the DEP’s public benefit determination that favored a 9.35 million cubic yard expansion.
Their concerns over the landfill expansion range from issues with odor to allegations of improper waste disposal practices and conflicts of interest involved in the state planning office and DEP’s oversight of Casella.
Don Meagher, Casella’s manager of planning and development, said Thursday that expanding Juniper Ridge is imperative if Casella is going to fulfill its side of the deal it made with the state in 2003.
“Our contract with the state, which we thought was a commitment by the state as well, was to 2034,” Meagher said. Casella sought to grow the landfill by 21.9 million cubic yards when it applied for a public benefit determination, but the DEP decided in late January that an expansion half the size would suffice for now.
Meagher said the landfill’s current capacity is expected to run out, and the 9.35 million cubic yard expansion recommended by the DEP would extend that by about 10 years. That still runs well short of what Casella needs to fulfill its 30-year contract, Meagher argued.
Opponents question Casella’s numbers tactics and argue the need for landfill space isn’t as urgent as Casella and the state insist. Meagher said Casella’s opponents are on a “fishing expedition” and have yet to prove the company is doing any wrong.
Adding to the expansion controversy is news that Biddeford officials and Casella-owned Maine Energy Recovery Co. could be closing in on a long-in-the-works deal that would close the waste-to-energy facility in Biddeford and send municipal solid waste that would have gone to the incinerator to Juniper Ridge.
The Biddeford City Council voted Tuesday to set up a committee to negotiate with MERC’s owners a plan that would allow the city to purchase the incinerator for $7.5 million. A memorandum of understanding between the city and Casella suggests a new recycling program in the city and the construction of a Westbrook transfer station. They would also seek a state permit to allow Juniper Ridge to accept municipal solid waste that would have gone to the incinerator.
Meagher said Thursday that he isn’t yet sure how much more solid waste Juniper Ridge would take in if MERC closes.
“There still has to be a home for waste that is currently going [to MERC] because those are our customers and we’re a business,” Meagher said, adding that if the incinerator closes, that leaves the landfill as the last option for Casella.
MERC General Manager Ken Robbins said the facility expects to process 260,000 tons of waste this year and that the majority of that trash originates outside Maine. He said he couldn’t guess how much more solid waste Juniper Ridge might receive per year if the MERC incinerator were to shut down, but that the landfill wouldn’t receive the full tonnage that MERC has processed in the past because some of the waste would be recycled or processed in other ways.
The amount of waste that would pass on to Juniper Ridge would depend on the details of the final deal, Robbins said.
Meagher argued that, unlike the incinerator ash residue Juniper Ridge currently landfills for MERC, municipal solid waste would decompose over time, lessening its effect on the landfill’s capacity crunch.
After the DEP’s public benefit determination announcement, Athens resident Hillary Lister drafted a letter to the Government Oversight Committee that highlighted a series of complaints shared for years by Casella opponents around Old Town and across the state.
The letter requests a state office of Program Evaluation & Government Accountability review and audit of Casella’s operations in Maine.
Lister’s letter poses the following questions:
• What percentage of waste being sent to Juniper Ridge Landfill is generated outside of Maine’s borders?
• Is Casella operating Juniper Ridge and its other facilities in a manner that follows the state’s solid waste management hierarchy? The hierarchy — reduce, reuse, recycle, compost, waste-to-energy and landfill — prioritizes waste management practices in an effort to reduce the amount of landfilled waste in the state.
• Have the terms of the Operating Services Agreement been followed?
• Has there been a misuse of public funds related to Casella’s operation of Juniper Ridge?
• Has Casella complied with terms of its Host Community Agreement with Old Town?
• Have there been anti-competitive actions relating to requests for proposals and the process of awarding state-funded contracts to Casella?
• Are there conflicts of interest involving the state planning office’s oversight of Juniper Ridge and, if the planning office is eliminated in 2012, are there potential conflicts of interest with oversight of the landfill by the DEP?
Lister said she would like OPEGA to run an independent audit of waste coming into Juniper Ridge to see if the state’s estimates on landfill capacity requirements are accurate.
“Ever since the landfill was initially brought forth as an idea, people pushed for oversight,” Lister said Wednesday. Casella’s opponents say oversight has been lackluster and questionable because the landfill’s owners are the ones providing it.
Appeals to the SPO and DEP haven’t been heard, Lister said, arguing that a third party should be brought in to review data submitted by Casella to the state planning office and conduct a separate audit of the landfilled waste and its origins.
The Government Oversight Committee will meet at 1 p.m. Tuesday, April 10, to discuss the review request and comb through information about the letter’s main points.
OPEGA director Beth Ashcroft said Wednesday the agency would consider reviewing Casella’s operations in Maine, but it already has investigations scheduled through the fall on other matters. She noted that it might encounter another request on April 10 to consider a review of aspects of the Department of Health and Human Services.
If the Government Oversight Committee finds that the complaints about Casella warrant further investigation, it will pass its recommendations to OPEGA, which would determine what steps to take in conducting a review.
The number of requests brought before OPEGA have “ramped up considerably over the last year and a half or so,” Ashcroft said, adding that she isn’t sure when she would have enough resources free to conduct an investigation or where the request would be placed on the schedule if the Government Oversight Committee decides to accept it.
“I think we could slow down a lot of the expansion that, really, right now seems to be on the fast track to approval,” Lister said.
Meanwhile, Old Town resident Ed Spencer has earned the chance to challenge before the Board of Environmental Protection the DEP’s public benefit determination of the Juniper Ridge expansion.
Spencer, who lives less than two miles from the landfill, argued in his appeal that he had suffered injury as result of the expansion decision because of the odor and noise created by the landfill’s operations.
Lessard granted him standing in the matter on the basis that it was “plausible that you suffer impacts from odor and noise emanating from the landfill,” but that standing may be challenged by Casella’s attorney.
Two other residents, Charles Leithiser of Old Town and Sam Hunting of Orono, also appealed the public benefit determination, but Lessard denied their appeals because they failed to prove they were “aggrieved persons,” according to BEP executive analyst Cynthia Bertocci.
“You have to show that you’re going to be harmed in some way,” but to a higher degree than other residents in the state or Old Town, Bertocci said Wednesday. “Many times, that comes down to proximity.”
Casella declined to comment on Spencer’s appeal, and Casella’s attorney Tom Doyle did not respond to a phone message Thursday asking if he would appeal Lessard’s decision to the board.
“We actually don’t comment on pending litigation, whether it’s administrative or in courts,” Meagher said.
Spencer said Wednesday that his review of numbers from the state don’t show an urgent need for the expansion.
Bertocci said Spencer is scheduled to make his case before the board on May 3. The board can either deny Spencer’s appeal, which would uphold the DEP’s public benefit ruling, or accept Spencer’s appeal, which would allow the BEP to overturn the DEP’s decision and make its own conclusion on what the state’s landfill capacity need is, according to Bertocci.
“I’m confident I’ll prevail,” Spencer said.
Spencer said he was “somewhat pleased” with the DEP’s partial expansion approval, but that he “just thinks it’s too early to be making that decision.”
He argued that a slow economy, high diesel prices and a new fee on construction and demolition debris set to come into effect next year will cause the landfill to fill up at a slower rate than the state expects.
Meagher said Casella’s opponents are fishing for numbers to prove their arguments. Maine generates a certain amount of waste each year and needs landfill space to dispose of it, he said.
He said activists were making a reverse “Field of Dreams” argument: “If you don’t build it, nobody will generate solid waste, but that’s just not the case,” Meagher said.
“The need for an expansion is the simple numbers, which are not disputable,” Meagher said. “Landfill opponents are simply ignoring that mathematical [fact].”
Lister and Spencer said their data and the numbers revealed by a potential third-party audit would show a different story.