OLD TOWN, Maine — As of Tuesday, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection had received more than 100 written comments — and six public hearing requests — about a controversial plan to send some of the solid waste now processed at a southern Maine waste-to-energy plant to the state-owned landfill in Old Town.
At issue is a plan to shut down the Maine Energy Recovery Co. incinerator in Biddeford — resolving decades of complaints from residents about the smell and truck traffic created by the downtown facility — and put the building in the hands of the city for redevelopment. Maine trash now processed there would be sent to Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town.
The comment period began after the DEP on Oct. 3 accepted as complete an application from the state’s Bureau of General Services and Casella Waste Systems Inc. that aims to remove restrictions placed on in-state municipal solid waste disposal at Juniper Ridge.
Earlier this month, the Bureau of General Services, which took over as the landfill’s owner when the State Planning Office was eliminated, and Casella, which operates the Old Town landfill, both said that the shift wouldn’t change much. The application caps the amount of municipal solid waste the landfill can accept annually at 123,000 tons.
In the application, Casella states that the amount of municipal solid waste diverted from MERC to Juniper Ridge will be offset by the elimination of residuals, such as ash and front-end process residue, that MERC produced when it was in operation and then sent to be landfilled in Old Town. Because of that, the landfill’s capacity shouldn’t run out sooner than expected, Casella said.
Among those who submitted comments opposed to the trash shift was Old Town resident Ed Spencer, who said the DEP should reject the application because it constitutes “a wholesale violation of Maine’s solid waste policy,” which identifies landfilling as the least desirable method of solid waste management.
“It should be restated that DEP has no obligation to serve Casella’s customers,” Spencer said. “If Casella wants to stop incinerating in Biddeford, they have choices,” among them, sending southern Maine waste out of state or to one of the three other waste-to-energy plants in Maine.
Supporters who submitted a letter of comment include Alison Jortberg, who grew up across the river from Biddeford in Saco. She wrote that she and hundreds of her neighbors are looking forward to MERC’s closure.
“When I was growing up in this community, we did not burn trash in our downtown, but we knew things had to change,” she said. “Things always change with advances in technology and greater awareness about the need to protect our environment. … Allowing MERC to close and that waste to be disposed of at a safe and controlled facility will provide many benefits, including new ways to use landfill gas to replace other fuel sources.”
DEP spokeswoman Samantha Depoy-Warren said that because the proposal reflects a significant shift to Maine’s solid waste policy and because its effect would reach well beyond Biddeford and Old Town, DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho has honored a request received from an Old Town resident to hold a public hearing on the matter.
That hearing has yet to be scheduled but likely will take place early next year in the Augusta area, the spokeswoman said. The DEP’s next step will be to issue a public notice that interested parties have 20 days to request intervenor status, which would enable them to be a formal party to the process in that intervenors can present evidence under oath and cross-examine other parties.
The department next will make a ruling on who qualifies for intervenor status. In January, the DEP will hold a prehearing conference to discuss what comes next and then set a hearing date on the application.
The time frame from that point will depend on the number of intervenors, Depoy-Warren said, adding that some of those who apply for intervenor status might be grouped together.
To see the comments, the application and other documents related to Juniper Ridge, visit http://maine.gov/dep/waste/juniperridge/index.html.