2012 aerial photo of the PERC plant in Orrington. Credit: courtesy of R.W. Estela

Rather than have their solid waste dumped in a landfill, five coastal towns have chosen to violate their contracts and instead send their waste to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company.

The rogue decision was made earlier this month by a committee of residents who decide where the waste from Blue Hill, Surry, Sedgwick, Brooklin and Brooksville is disposed. The five communities share a transfer station and create a collective 4,000 tons of waste a year, said Blue Hill Selectboard member Jim Schatz, who confirmed the towns’ decision.

Schatz said the committee’s primary concern was to avoid landfilling their waste, despite the increased cost. Sending their waste to PERC will cost $84 per ton, whereas landfilling it would have cost closer to $70, Schatz said.

Schatz and five other members of the local solid waste management committee voted unanimously in favor of violating their respective community contracts with the Municipal Review Committee. MRC recently relegated the waste from 115 participating member communities to be dumped at Juniper Ridge Landfill, in Old Town, or Crossroads Landfill, in Norridgewock.

“That whole idea of what’s best for our waste, that was just put aside,” he said of MRC’s decision.

MRC is a non-profit organization made up of nearly 200 central, northern and Down East communities dedicated to disposing of solid waste in environmentally sustainable ways. Together, the majority of MRC communities decided in 2016 to end their contracts with PERC to work with its competitor, Fiberight, which is building a new waste-to-biofuel facility in Hampden.

Community contracts with PERC, which burns waste for electricity, expired on March 31. A new contract started with Fiberight on April 1, but Fiberight CEO Craig Stuart-Paul said harsh winter weather delayed construction of the 144,000-square-foot plant, which is still months from completion. On the date it was supposed to be operational, only half of the roof had been installed.

“It’s like a broken promise by MRC, the promise that we would have an up and running Fiberight on April 1 or shortly thereafter, and it’s not happening,” Schatz said. “Who’s going to be accountable for that? Not us.”

As a stopgap measure, MRC and others involved were granted a temporary license by the state Department of Environmental Protection that allows the waste that would have gone to Fiberight to instead be landfilled for up to a year, with a possible six-month extension. If the $69 million Fiberight facility isn’t fully operational for a year, it’s estimated that as much as 100,000 tons of waste will be landfilled.

Landfilling is the least desirable way to dispose of municipal solid waste, according to the state DEP’s Solid Waste Management Hierarchy, a set of guidelines that dictates waste management licensing.

What MRC communities are dealing with now — landfilling their trash as a last resort and gambling with the future of municipal waste disposal — was many people’s biggest concern, said Ben Astbury, chairman of the Sedgwick Board of Selectmen.

“You had a facility that was not yet built, so what other options did we have, considering the decision that was made to go with a company that hadn’t built a facility yet?” Astbury said.

Schatz and other committee members voted in late March to disobey the new agreement, shortly after MRC Executive Director Greg Lounder notified member communities of the interim landfill disposal plan that could last until September.

In January, before this deal was finalized, MRC had been in talks with PERC to divert up to 62,000 tons of waste to the Orrington-based facility in the interim. But Waste Management Corp., which owns and operates the Norridgewock landfill, wanted exclusive rights to dispose of the waste and wouldn’t allow it.

“I think there’s a lot of frustration and disappointment in MRC’s leadership on some of our parts, and on DEP’s lack of leadership in terms of letting this happen,” Schatz said.

In a memo dated April 5, Lounder warned MRC members who choose to send their waste to PERC instead of Juniper Ridge or Crossroads of the possible consequences.

“Joining members and haulers that deliver [municipal solid waste] to PERC … thereby disregarding instructions from and contractual obligations to the MRC, will be exposing their municipalities to significant legal liability,” Lounder said.

Possible consequences, the memo continued, could range from financial penalties to loss of long-term agreements for disposal benefits through MRC.

Lounder, when reached on Friday, would not say whether MRC is pursuing any sort of legal response at this time, but said, “we’re working with Blue Hill on that issue to resolve it in a way that’s favorable to [them].”

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