AUGUSTA, Maine — After breaking into caucuses during its meeting Friday, the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee decided it needed more time to determine whether it would follow up on a request for an investigation into Casella Waste Systems Inc.’s practices and operations of the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town.
The committee has discussed the potential for an Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability investigation at three separate meetings since Athens resident Hillary Lister drafted a letter to the committee and OPEGA calling for review.
Among the questions raised in the letter were: How much waste disposed at the landfill originated outside Maine’s borders? Were there anti-competitive 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?
OPEGA Director Beth Ashcroft said the committee has received a “flood of letters” and information from parties on both sides. Some of that information caused concern for some members of the committee.
The accountability office has been stretched thin this year and already has a full schedule of investigations and requests for more, Ashcroft has said.
Members of the committee were divided over a motion to drop the request for review from the committee’s docket and not conduct an OPEGA investigation. After realizing they were split on the issue, committee members broke into caucuses and decided to take more time to discuss the potential review.
Several members of the committee, including Reps. Donald Pilon, D-Saco, and Andrea Boland, D-Sanford, said they were concerned that the deal reached between Casella and the state for the operation of the landfill appeared to be anti-competitive, unethical and possibly illegal.
“This was on track with Casella all the way,” Pilon said. “This is an inside deal, [the state] streamlined this thing for Casella.”
Casella has said two other companies were interested in operating the landfill for the state, but those entities eventually dropped out of the bidding process.
Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, argued that there are better avenues to address the questions about Casella. He suggested a legislative bill to change the definition of out-of-state waste could resolve concerns about the origins of waste going into the landfill.
Other members of the committee said they didn’t see what OPEGA could do, and that the attorney general’s office would be better suited to address if legal action were taken.
While the committee had a number of unanswered questions and concerns, Burns argued it wasn’t OPEGA’s role to speculate.
Members of the committee who were in favor of rejecting the request for review said concerned residents could look to the appeals process of agencies that oversee Juniper Ridge’s operations.
One such appeal regarding a proposed expansion of the landfill is approaching. The Department of Environmental Protection found in January that a 9.35 million cubic yard expansion would benefit the public, a step required before Casella could apply for licenses and permits to start the project.
Old Town resident Ed Spencer will present an appeal before the Board of Environmental Protection on July 19, where he will attempt to persuade the board to reverse the DEP’s public benefit determination.
The BEP will then decide whether to overrule the DEP, back its finding or alter it.
The need for an expansion could be compounded by plans to close Casella-owned Maine Energy Recovery Co.’s waste-to-energy plant in Biddeford.
Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-York, raised a question about how a long-in-the-works deal to close MERC would affect the amount of waste coming into Juniper Ridge.
Biddeford and Casella have reached a tentative deal in which the city would purchase the facility for $6.65 million and begin the process of shutting it down, according to City Manager John Bubier. The city still has to go through the brownfield process and conduct several public meetings before the deal becomes final, he said.
If MERC were to shut down, the in-state waste that would have been burned at that facility would be disposed of at Juniper Ridge, according to Casella Vice President Joe Fusco.
MERC General Manager Ken Robbins said earlier this year that the facility expects to process 260,000 tons of waste in 2012 and that the majority of that trash originates outside Maine.
“There’s still this huge elephant in the room,” Sullivan said, adding that she wasn’t comfortable dropping the landfill issue without some form of review.