Government Oversight Committee decides against Casella investigation

Aerial photo of Juniper Ridge landfill in Old Town on April 6, 2012.
R.W. Estela
Aerial photo of Juniper Ridge landfill in Old Town on April 6, 2012.
Posted Aug. 14, 2012, at 5:54 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability won’t investigate Casella Waste Systems, the operator of Old Town’s Juniper Ridge Landfill, the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee decided Tuesday afternoon.

Instead, the committee chairmen and OPEGA Director Beth Ashcroft will draft a letter to the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee suggesting that it be mindful of several concerns shared by some members of the oversight committee and Casella opponents. Oversight committee members accepted the motion, made by Senate Chairman Roger Katz, R-Augusta, in an 11-1 vote.

The committee had discussed the potential for an investigation at multiple meetings, tabling and pushing back discussion several times because it either ran out of time during meetings or needed more information.

Athens resident Hillary Lister drafted a letter to the committee and OPEGA calling for an investigation into Casella’s operations. That letter was signed by 10 state legislators.

Among the questions raised in the letter were: How much waste disposed of at the landfill originated outside Maine’s borders? Were there anticompetitive business practices when the state chose the Vermont-based waste handler to operate Juniper Ridge? And is Casella operating in compliance with its Operating Services Agreement?

Ashcroft said at past meetings that the committee had received a “flood of letters” and information from parties on both sides. Some of that information caused concern for some members of the committee.

Oversight committee members who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting said they shared several concerns and questions raised by members of the public regarding Casella and Juniper Ridge Landfill. However, the lawmakers didn’t feel those concerns justified making room for another OPEGA investigation, and that other legislative committees or legislation in the next session would be more suited to addressing questions raised in Lister’s letter.

The accountability office, which is a legislative agency, is stretched thin this year and already has a full schedule of investigations and requests for more, Ashcroft has said.

Ashcroft and Katz said the letter to the Natural Resources Committee would point out concerns including how the oversight of solid waste policies and companies be handled after the dissolution of the State Planning Office, whether the current definition of out-of-state waste serves the state’s best interests, whether the Juniper Ridge Landfill Advisory Committee is included enough in landfill-related discussions and whether the state is relying too much on Casella to handle solid waste.

“I’m concerned that we’re creating a monopoly on trash here in Maine,” Rep. Donald Pilon, D-Saco, said during Tuesday’s meeting. “Is that the best thing for the state of Maine?”

Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, said she saw several “red flags, but I don’t think they rise to the level of an investigation.”

Sullivan said she was “frustrated” with her community’s recent deal to purchase and close the Maine Energy Recovery Co. incinerator. Casella has said the waste that once went into the incinerator will now have to be deposited into Juniper Ridge Landfill, which is in the process of applying for an expansion permit.

“I just feel Biddeford’s taking their problem and dumping it on Juniper Ridge,” Sullivan said.

Rep. Andrea Boland, D-Sanford, was the lone dissenting vote. She said she felt the committee should have OPEGA look into some of the questions raised by members of the public to ensure that Maine residents are being treated fairly.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, argued that every item on OPEGA’s agenda is “important to a lot of people,” and that the questions and concerns about the landfill and Casella didn’t warrant pushing aside other items.

“We’re only four months away from the new Legislature,” Diamond said, suggesting that many of the concerns surrounding Casella and waste management, such as the definition of in-state waste, were centered on policy and statute decisions that could be addressed through legislation in the next session.

“I feel confident that this issue will not go away,” Diamond said.

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