OLD TOWN, Maine — The Juniper Ridge landfill, already an onerous presence for many area residents, is planning a major expansion. If the plan is approved, the licensed capacity of the state-owned facility would more than triple, from its current 10 million cubic yards to 30.2 million cubic yards. The landfill is operated by Vermont-based Casella Waste Systems.
By contrast, the much more visible Pine Tree Landfill in Hampden, which is owned by Casella and which will stop accepting waste this fall, has a capacity of only 6 million cubic yards. The Juniper Ridge site encompasses about 780 acres. No additional land would be needed to increase the site’s licensed capacity.
According to State Planning Office Director Martha Freeman, Casella is required in its contract with the state to submit a plan and a timeline this year for expanding Juniper Ridge.
“Casella, as our agent, has taken on the responsibility of having to meet the capacity needs of this state for the disposal of solid waste,” Freeman said Monday. Though it could take years for the expansion to be approved and implemented, “we need to be sure we’ve got the capacity we need when the state needs it,” she said.
Though critics protest the amount of trash accepted from out-of-state sources, all materials trucked to Juniper Ridge meet the legal definition of in-state trash, said George MacDonald, manager of waste management and recycling for the State Planning Office. Under that definition, trash and debris trucked into Maine and “processed” — most often by taking out any materials that can be burned to generate electricity — can legally proceed to the landfill, which opened in 2004.
In 2007, about 45 percent of the waste processed at the Casella-owned Maine Energy Recovery Co. plant in Biddeford came from out of state, MacDonald said. But once the materials are processed, the ability is lost to track the volume of nonburnable residue originating in other states that is taken to the landfill, he said.
Old Town resident Ed Spencer, who lives about a mile and a half from Juniper Ridge, said Monday that there are too many problems with the existing capacity of the landfill to be contemplating an expansion at this time.
Spencer is among those who feel strongly that the definition of in-state waste should be tightened up. That in itself would slow the growth of the landfill and delay the need for expansion, he said.
In addition, many area landowners are unsatisfied with Casella’s management of environmental problems such as odor and runoff into local wells and waterways, according to Spencer. The long-term health and environmental effect of the gases and chemicals released into the environment from Juniper Ridge have not been adequately studied, he said.
While officials characterize the smell from the landfill as a “nuisance,” Spencer said the problem demands greater concern. Recently, he said, the odor was “so strong it moved beyond a smell. It made the back of your throat burn so you were almost afraid to take another breath.”
Despite numerous calls to the company’s “odor complaint hot line,” Spencer said, the odor problem persists.
“Things like this need to be resolved before we start talking about any expansion,” he said.
As the landfill’s “host community,” the city of Old Town has received more than $3.3 million since Juniper Ridge opened for business. The funds are generated by a $1.89-per-ton assessment, directed into accounts for education, economic development and a new city hall, according to City Manager Peggy Daigle.
Casella generally has been responsive to community concerns, Daigle said. But in advance of the state’s approval of any expansion, she said, the city intends to draft ordinances granting it a degree of regulatory authority over operations at Juniper Ridge. The city also will take an active role in vetting the proposed expansion, she said, including holding public hearings and informational meetings.
Casella’s preliminary plan to expand Juniper Ridge probably will be submitted to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection within a few weeks, according to MacDonald of the planning office. Public hearings in Augusta and the Old Town area likely will be scheduled in May or June.
Attempts on Monday to reach a Casella spokesman were unsuccessful.