The company developing a state-of-the-art waste processing facility in Hampden says the project will probably be completed by the end of March — nearly a full year after the facility was supposed to begin receiving waste from more than 100 Maine towns and cities.
Officials have attributed the delay to multiple factors, including weather that slowed construction last winter, a legal challenge to the project’s environmental permits and a changing market for recycled goods.
With construction complete in March, the Fiberight plant should begin accepting waste in April, the company’s CEO, Craig Stuart-Paul, said during a tour of the three-acre construction site this week.
But Stuart-Paul added that the timeline could stretch longer.
“Things can go wrong,” Stuart-Paul said. “We may have to change our equipment, in which case it will be May for full production, but we can certainly handle some elements of the waste stream.”
The Maryland-based company has largely assembled the complex array of green-and-yellow steel equipment — known as the Material Resource Recovery Facility, or MRRF — that takes up one end of the plant and that will be used to sort recyclables and garbage.
It is still constructing the back end of the plant, where waste will be processed in a pulper and a 600,000-gallon anaerobic digestion tank.
But Fiberight’s latest timeline is markedly different from the one it offered in the project’s early stages, when it said the plant would start accepting waste in April 2018.
The Maryland-based company has agreed to accept solid waste and recycling from the Municipal Review Committee, a group representing 115 towns and cities across central, northern and eastern Maine.
The group used to send its refuse to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. facility in Orrington but in 2016 decided to leave that arrangement because a power purchase agreement between PERC and Emera Maine was set to expire in 2018, affecting the rates that sending communities would have to pay.
At the time, Fiberight aimed to start construction on the Hampden plant in mid-2017 and planned to begin accepting waste in April 2018. But it delayed the projected opening date multiple times, forcing communities to indefinitely send their waste to landfills in Norridgewock and Old Town at a cost of $70 per ton.
That has frustrated some residents and officials who hoped they would be able to send their recyclables to the Hampden plant already, especially given tightened waste management practices in China that have driven up the costs of recycling in the U.S.
Stuart-Paul offered various reasons for the delays. Last spring, he said that winter weather and a legal challenge to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s permitting process had slowed construction.
This week, he said the project was also delayed because Fiberight had originally proposed building a transfer station in Hampden, but wasn’t able to because the town changed its zoning ordinance in Aug. 2017 to prevent transfer stations from opening there.
One other recent change is the company that’s building the Hampden plant. At the beginning of November, Bancroft Contracting Corp. took over the construction project from Cianbro Corp. But Stuart-Paul said that change did not affect the timeline of the project. While Cianbro did “a great job,” he said Fiberight decided to contract with Bancroft because it has experience working on paper mills with similar technology to the pulping mechanism that is under construction in Hampden.
A Cianbro spokesman declined to comment on the Fiberight project but confirmed that the company was no longer working on it.
During the construction site tour Wednesday, Stuart-Paul also pointed to the changing market for recycled paper as another reason the company is holding off until early spring to start accepting waste. It could start operating the MRRF sooner, he said, but it would have a hard time selling paper waste in the bundled form it’s in when it emerges from the MRRF.
On the other hand, he argued that waiting until the pulper is operating in the other end of the plant will allow paper waste to be converted to cellulose, which can be resold to manufacturers that use it in egg cartons and other products.
“We have to get all systems that we designed to upgrade materials working, so I’ve got those markets available,” Stuart-Paul said. “Otherwise I’m just throwing away paper.”
Greg Lounder, the executive director of the Municipal Review Committee, attributed the late opening to another part of the process.
After Fiberight’s state environmental permits were challenged in court by its regional competitor, PERC, investors put some of the project’s funding on hold, Lounder said.
While the Municipal Review Committee did plan for possible delays, it has cost the member communities to send their waste to landfills, Lounder said.
“In a best case scenario, we certainly would have liked to avoid needing to do that,” he said. “Our focus right now is on all the positive progress made with construction and closing in on the finish line. … We’re very close to the point in time where we can bring the facility into service for the region.”
Correction: This story has been updated to clarify the legal process that delayed Fiberight’s state environmental permits from becoming effective and the action the town of Hampden took that prevented Fiberight from opening a transfer station on its site.