Client towns sue PERC over $750,000 lobbying bill

Posted April 30, 2014, at 6:24 a.m.
Last modified April 30, 2014, at 5:28 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — A group representing more than 180 municipalities that send solid waste to an Orrington energy incinerator is suing the Minnesota-based firm that owns the plant.

The case, filed last month in Hancock County Superior Court in Ellsworth, was transferred Monday to U.S. District Court in Bangor, according to information posted online at the federal court’s publicly accessible online document database.

According to court documents, USA Energy Group of Minneapolis, Minn., is trying to get the towns to help pay $750,000 in legal and consulting bills that stem from a legislative lobbying effort in Maine that the towns opposed. The Municipal Review Committee, the Ellsworth-based entity that represents 187 towns in their arrangement with Penobscot Energy Recovery Co., claims in the complaint that under a partnership agreement it has with the Minnesota company, the committee has a legal right to approve or deny how partnership funds are spent.

The committee says it made it clear that it was opposed to the firm’s active support and promotion of a bill submitted to the Legislature, LD 1483. It also claims it received assurances from the Minnesota firm that partnership funds would not be used to pay for the lobbying effort.

“Despite those assurances, [the firm] has now made it clear to the [committee] and the partnership that it intends to apply partnership resources to pay the bills of the law firms and consultants hired by [the firm] in connection with its effort to secure passage of LD 1483,” the committee said in its March 31 complaint. “Those bills total approximately $750,000 to date.”

Greg Lounder, executive director for the Municipal Review Committee, said Wednesday that the bill in its original form was expected to result in a total $6 million increase over four years in tipping fees for Municipal Review Committee member towns.

According to Lounder, the bill would have increased tipping fees charged by companies that run landfill facilities and would have used at least some of those revenues to fund a new solid waste “stabilization” account controlled by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. He said money in that account then would have been redistributed to qualifying communities that send solid waste to electricity-generating incinerators such as the PERC plant in Orrington — which, according to Lounder, simply would have put PERC in a position to increase its own tipping fees.

Not only did the municipal group oppose the bill on financial grounds, Lounder said, but it objected to PERC’s position that its operation in Orrington uses the best available technology. The member towns are interested in exploring new waste-to-energy technologies and even waste reduction strategies, he said, but PERC is interested in maintaining the status quo.

It comes down to competing visions between the Minnesota firm and the Maine municipal group concerning the future of solid waste disposal in the state, Lounder said.

“We feel it is time to take a fresh look at any and all options for improving the way we handle our trash,” Lounder said. “Clearly, we have a fundamental disagreement over that.”

That disagreement was made evident last month when the Municipal Review Committee indicated that it is looking to create its own landfill and recycling facility, possibly in Greenbush or Argyle.

LD 1483 ended up being changed drastically, Lounder said, so that instead of permitting any increased tipping fees, it merely requires DEP to amend its review criteria for approving solid waste disposal licenses, which his group does not oppose.

Attempts to contact officials with USA Energy Group on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Bangor attorney David Walker, who represents the Minnesota firm in the lawsuit, cited time constraints Tuesday and declined to go into detail about the different perspectives on the legislative proposal. But he said that his client believed that LD 1483 as initially proposed would have benefited all parties.

“[My client] felt it was a bill that was good for the partnership, good for its constituents, and good for the state in general,” Walker said.

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