The speech that controls Maine’s landfill regulations

By Paul Schroeder, Special to the BDN
Posted June 17, 2013, at 11:58 a.m.

This April, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection held the first public hearings on Juniper Ridge Landfill’s operations since the site was originally licensed as a sludge dump for Georgia Pacific in 1993. The hearings mark 10 years since Georgia Pacific announced the closing of its Old Town paper mill and were convened nine years to the day after the DEP issued the amended license that allowed Georgia Pacific’s sludge dump to become what is now Juniper Ridge.

The change of use and ownership, from mill sludge dump to multimillion-cubic-yard regional garbage storage facility, was authorized by means of legislation enacted in the last moments of the 2003 session.

One feature of this process that makes discussion difficult is the specialized vocabulary that controls it. Definitions that guide Maine’s laws and rules often differ dramatically from everyday usage. For instance, the 2004 public meetings in Old Town that attracted hundreds of local residents, mostly opposed, were not “public hearings” as defined by the DEP. By contrast the recent actual public hearings were conducted under oath with the opportunity for the parties to ask direct questions of each other and expect truthful answers.

In a similar contrast between definition and usage, the landfill has not undergone any “expansion” since 1993 when it was established as Georgia Pacific’s sludge dump, but we have seen only a “vertical increase” along with “increased waste streams.” “Expansion” under DEP rules only involves dumping outside existing permitted boundaries. Due to the inherent instability of sludge, Georgia Pacific gained an ample 68-acre permit, that has now become a mountain of trash piled hundreds of feet high, but is not an “expansion.”

Largely due to this absence of a technical “expansion” beyond its original boundaries, developers of the facility have avoided public hearings until now.

Casella Waste System’s current request to change its permit to allow large amounts of raw garbage into Juniper Ridge Landfill was deemed significant enough by the DEP to merit the April 2013 public hearings. As of June 1, no decision has been announced on Casella’s permit request. Casella operates the state-owned landfill.

Meanwhile, disturbing new information has emerged from the recent public hearings. We learned that the city of Biddeford and the private owners of the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company incinerator in Orrington obliged themselves by contract to testify in support of Casella’s permit application.

Soon after the hearings, the BDN published a letter of concern from Sam Hunting (April 27-28) who asked what Casella hoped to gain by requiring contracted speech, beyond the “truth” that is required under oath. He also asked how common this practice is. How many other contracts such as this are out there that we don’t know about?

In reviewing various Casella agreements, at least six of them involve restrictions on speech or, in some cases, require testimony or advocacy in Casella’s favor. A widespread but somewhat invisible practice of “contracted speech” is emerging that presents some puzzling problems.

For instance, the letter of agreement between Casella and Biddeford, signed after the sale of the Maine Energy incinerator to the city was complete, requires the city to “not oppose, and will publically (sic) and privately support” Casella’s garbage disposal permit request. The contract with PERC requires it to provide the “delivery of a reasonable number of supportive communications with legislators, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, the staff of the Governor of Maine, and with officials and administrative bodies of the relevant localities” in support of the disposal permit application.

What does it mean for a public entity such as the city of Biddeford to be bound by contract to act in support of a private entity’s goals, when all other issues between them have been resolved (in this case, the completed sale and shutdown of the Maine Energy Recovery Co. incinerator)? What does it mean for a city to agree in writing to engage “privately” in support of another entity’s objectives? And echoing Hunting’s questions, how are we supposed to interpret testimony that is given under oath when it is also being required by contract?

These and similar questions are being asked about the various “contracted speech” agreements that Casella has devised with its various partners, or victims.

BDN readers who want to look more closely at this issue can view documents at the DEP’s Juniper Ridge Landfill resource page on the Internet. Readers are encouraged to consider the many costs that the misconceived Juniper Ridge Landfill project has brought to our communities and state. Now we also need to ask about the costs in terms of reduced public knowledge and limited public voice that result from Casella’s widespread and questionable imposition of contracted speech agreements, especially with its public “partners.”

Paul Schroeder lives in Orono and has closely observed the Juniper Ridge Landfill permitting process since 2004.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/06/17/opinion/contributors/the-speech-that-controls-maines-landfill-regulations/ printed on July 26, 2014