Credit: George Danby

Tens of thousands of tons of municipal solid waste from all over eastern Maine are now heading directly to landfills. This is a monumental tragedy for Maine’s environment, and it is sad that state officials charged with protecting Maine’s environment seem to be looking the other way.

Sadly, this mess didn’t have to happen. If one had followed the actions of the Municipal Review Committee, the organization representing the more than 100 communities now sending unprocessed waste directly to landfills, you would not be surprised.

Six years ago, long before its contract with PERC was scheduled to expire, the MRC tried to get a new landfill approved in Greenbush and Argyle. The state wisely said no.

Around the same time, the MRC opposed legislationLD 1483 — that would have promoted surcharges on landfills to support Maine’s solid waste hierarchy, which says you need to reduce, reuse, recycle, compost and utilize waste-to-energy to dispose of waste — with landfilling as a last resort.

In 2015, when the MRC was making plans to leave PERC for the new Fiberight venture, it signed an exclusive contract with the Crossroads Landfill in Norridgewock in case the Fiberight plant wasn’t ready on time.

The MRC insists that this “bridge” landfill agreement is needed. Yet, the PERC plant, which reduces waste 90 percent by volume and generates electricity, is still operating successfully. PERC still has the capacity to continue serving the same MRC towns that sent their waste there over the past 30 years.

Adding to this absurdity is the strange and unusual “swap agreement” between the MRC and state’s two biggest landfill operators, Waste Management in Norridgewock and Casella in Old Town. Casella, which had been allowed for the past five years to bring waste from southern Maine to the Juniper Ridge landfill in exchange for closing the former MERC plant in Biddeford, was recently granted a one-year extension to continue receiving “stranded” municipal waste from the south.

But to ensure that cities like Bangor and Brewer, which generate nearly one-third of all MRC waste, could take advantage of the landfill contract without driving the added distance to Norridgewock, a waste swap was incorporated at the last minute into the pending Juniper Ridge permit at the request of the MRC.

This action was highly unusual and had no relevance to the pending Juniper Ridge application, but nevertheless it was approved by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and incorporated into Casella’s final permit. A permit was approved just one day before the MRC contract with PERC expired. Timing is everything.

The landfilling of unprocessed waste has no environmental benefit. The claim that the “swap” will materially lessen emissions is nonsensical. The use of these landfills will increase road time for all small collection vehicles. Plus it puts larger transfer trucks on the highways that were not even needed up until now.

Trucks carrying waste from Bar Harbor, for instance, will now travel right past PERC, adding an additional 128 miles per round trip just to dump waste on the ground. This is all happening weeks before summer begins, when waste volumes soar and traffic increases dramatically.

When adding in transportation costs, going to these landfills is no bargain, but the MRC hides these costs by saying they are covered by “reserves.” Transportation is still a cost, and the reserves are part of the more than $35 million earned by the towns from performance credits and profits through their former partnership with PERC.

Sadly, this environmental disaster could have been largely prevented. PERC and the MRC signed an agreement in January for PERC to take 62,000 tons of waste on an interim basis until the Fiberight plant was up and running. The agreement even stated that “it would be in the public interest to preserve scarce landfill disposal capacity in the State of Maine by having MSW processed rather than accepted for landfill disposal to the greatest extent feasible.”

Unfortunately, before the agreement was to take effect, the MRC reneged on it.

So here we are in 2018 taking a major step backward. The Fiberight plant, long promised to be ready on April 1, is still months away from completion while thousands of tons of waste are going directly into the ground, and a successful waste-to-energy facility, which sits above landfills on the waste hierarchy, is left underutilized.

This didn’t have to happen. It was a very bad choice, and Maine’s environment and future generations will pay the price.

Harry Sanborn lives in Alton.

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