AUGUSTA, Maine — The closure of Biddeford’s waste-to-energy incinerator sparked a fresh debate Tuesday on how trash is handled in Maine.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection conducted the first day of a two-day hearing on Casella Waste Systems Inc.’s application to dispose of southern Maine waste at Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town, which the state owns and Casella operates.
The city of Biddeford and Casella reached a $6.65 million deal in August of last year to shut down the Maine Energy Recovery Co. incinerator — resolving a quarter-century 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.
“We had customers that went to Maine Energy, and now their trash needs to go somewhere else,” Don Meagher, Casella’s manager for planning and development, said Tuesday during a break in the hearing.
Originally, Casella proposed to send all 123,000 tons of Maine waste burned each year in the incinerator to Juniper Ridge, but the company later reached an agreement to dispose of 30,000 tons at Penobscot Energy Recovery Co.’s Orrington incinerator, reducing the landfill request to 93,000 tons. An additional 170,000 tons of waste originating from out of state that was burned at MERC is no longer crossing the border into Maine, according to Casella.
“Waste policy is at a crossroads in Maine now,” said Old Town resident Ed Spencer, an intervenor in application process. “We’re just moving the wrong way on the ladder of the hierarchy if this goes through.”
The hierarchy — reduce, reuse, recycle, compost, waste-to-energy and landfill — prioritizes waste management practices in an effort to reduce the amount of landfilled waste in the state. Groups differ on whether that hierarchy is law, requirement or guideline.
Spencer and others have criticized Casella’s proposal to redirect 93,000 tons of waste that were being incinerated to a landfill, moving it down a rung on the hierarchy.
Kevin Roche of ecomaine, a Southern Maine waste disposal company that owns a waste-to-energy plant and landfill said Tuesday that landfilling is “the cheapest way out.” He said ecomaine prioritizes waste-to-energy processing and recycling, using its landfill as a last resort. For that reason, the landfill that straddles the border of South Portland and Scarborough is expected to have capacity until 2040.
Ecomaine representatives opposed Casella’s application, arguing that the plan to landfill waste that was once incinerated goes against the hierarchy and the goals for which waste handlers should strive.
Meagher, Casella’s manager for planning and development, has said the state’s waste hierarchy is meant to guide overall state policy, not to be used as a standard to evaluate individual applications.
Representatives of the Municipal Review Committee, a conglomeration of 187 communities that send their trash to PERC, said Tuesday that they support Casella’s application. The group has a temporary deal with Casella, in which Casella sends 30,000 tons of the former MERC waste to PERC for incineration. That extra stream means PERC has to rely less on costlier, out-of-state waste to produce its required energy.
If the DEP approves Casella’s application, that deal would continue, according to the Municipal Review Committee, strengthening PERC’s financial and energy security and ensuring viable, cheap disposal for the committee’s 187 towns and cities.
Other intervenors are the cities of Old Town, Biddeford and Saco; PERC; the Municipal Review Committee, Inc.; Old Town Fuel and Fiber; ecomaine; Mid-Maine Waste Action Corp.; and Old Town citizens Ed Spencer, Laura and Harry Sanborn, Wanda and David Lincoln and Ralph Coffman.
A comment session geared toward members of the public was scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, after a dinner break.
The second day of the hearing is scheduled to run 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. or later Wednesday at the Governor Hill Mansion in Augusta, 136 State St. While the meeting is open to the public, there will be no public comment period at that session.
The DEP continues to accept written comments on the application. Letters may be sent to Michael Parker, Maine Department of Environmental Protection, 17 State House Station, Augusta 04333-0017, or by email to email@example.com.
Parker said there’s no good indication of how long it will take the DEP to digest the hundreds of pages of materials and testimony and come to a decision on the application.
Meagher said that if the DEP denies Casella’s application, the company would “evaluate [its] disposal options” and make a business decision about how best to handle its customers’ trash.