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Bill to give Old Town landfill to Casella, close Biddeford incinerator postponed

John Clarke Russ | BDN
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Heavy machinery moves trash atop Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town on March 11, 2010.
By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Senate and House voted Monday afternoon to indefinitely postpone a bill that proposed passing ownership of state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill to Casella Waste Systems Inc. as a step toward closing the Maine Energy Recovery Co. incinerator in Biddeford.

The bill, LD 1911, sponsored by Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, would require that the transfer of Juniper Ridge’s ownership from the state to Casella occur before MERC could be sold or shut down.

“The bill is dead,” Rep. Robert Duchesne, D-Hudson, said Monday afternoon after the House met. Duchesne is the House’s Democratic ranking member on the Legislature’s Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.

“Nobody on the committee wanted to see this bill,” he said.

Hobbins did not return calls requesting comment on the bill on Saturday or Monday.

The bill would have authorized the executive branch to negotiate terms of the deal, including the transfer of ownership of Juniper Ridge to Casella, as well as the shutdown of MERC and the transfer of its ownership to the city of Biddeford. It also would have terminated the operating services agreement between Casella and the state.

The bill also would have allowed Juniper Ridge to take in an amount of solid waste not to exceed the amount of waste that was processed at MERC. MERC General Manager Ken Robbins said Thursday that the facility expects to process 260,000 tons of waste this year.

Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, began fighting the “eleventh-hour bill” last week, attempting to prevent it from going before the House or Senate at all, she said.

She argued that the bill proposed significant changes to a controversial, complex subject — waste management — and came so late in the legislative session that the public would have had little chance for comment. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on Wednesday, April 18, which leaves little time to carefully examine, consider and discuss the proposal, Schneider said.

The indefinite postponement of the bill essentially means it has been scrapped and would need to be redrafted and resubmitted during the next legislative session.

“In the long run, there could be a productive discussion in how all these solid waste assets play out,” Duchesne said, “but not last minute on such a complex bill.”

Joe Fusco, a Casella spokesman, said people shouldn’t read much into the bill’s late appearance. He said the deal to find a way to close MERC is still fluid and this bill was just a piece of reaching that goal.

“Obviously, there’s a negotiation going on. There are a lot of moving parts to closing Maine Energy,” with Juniper Ridge’s ownership being a major one, Fusco said.

“It’s never too late or too early to discuss these issues,” he said, adding that Casella would continue to try to figure out a way to absorb the future closing of MERC into Maine’s waste management infrastructure.

Schneider credited calls from concerned members of the public and municipal officials to the Senate president’s office with the successful defeat of the bill.

“People’s voices were heard, and I think that really did make the difference,” Schneider said.

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Patricia Aho will attend a Juniper Ridge Landfill Advisory Committee meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday on the first floor of the Old Town Public Library.

Peter Dufour, chairman of the advisory committee, said Aho would be asked to give an overview of the DEP’s decision process in its recent public benefit determination finding in favor of a limited expansion of Juniper Ridge. She also will be asked about how oversight of the landfill will be handled after the potential elimination of the State Planning Office, Dufour said.

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