September 15, 2019
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Maine rejects coastal town’s bid to turn former chemical waste site into solar farm

Chris Bouchard | Aroostook Republican
Chris Bouchard | Aroostook Republican
Camden officials had hoped to turn a former hazardous waste site into the home of a solar energy array, but state government rejected their $1 offer, so now they will explore other locations.

Camden officials are dismayed that state regulators rejected their $1 offer to buy the site of a former chemical plant in Hope, where Camden was hoping to build a municipal solar farm.

Camden Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell said the plans to turn the former hazardous waste site into a renewable energy opportunity should have outweighed the minimal monetary benefit the state would receive from the sale.

“[The plan] seemed like a win-win for everyone involved,” Caler-Bell said. “It just seems very shortsighted that the state government couldn’t find a way to be more creative to make something like this work.”

The Union Chemical Co., which handled paint stripping and petrochemical-based solvents, operated on the site from 1967 until the state shut it down in 1984. When it closed, there were 2,000 drums and 30 storage tanks of hazardous waste on site.

For three decades, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection have worked to clean up the site. In 1989, the site was added to the EPA’s National Priorities List, also known as the Superfund site list.

Last year, the EPA removed the site from the Superfund list, and the state put the property up for sale.

Camden officials thought the site would be perfect for a municipal solar farm, which the town has been pursuing for a number of years, Caler-Bell said. Camden already has a small municipally owned solar array, but a larger farm is needed to cover the entirety of the town’s electrical needs, which include the Camden Snow Bowl.

On May 22, the town submitted a proposal to buy the former Union Chemical for $1, with plans to build the solar farm. The plan also proposed that the state be a partner in the project, with the potential for shared electricity credits and an electric car charging station located on Route 17 — the main roadway that connects Augusta to the coast.

Camden officials were hopeful that the state would look past the price tag and consider how the plan would fit in with Gov. Janet Mills’ ambitious climate change goals, Caler-Bell said.

“We thought what we were offering in terms of the nonmonetary value of that site, and the ability to fulfill a broader policy goal that the governor set forth for energy and climate change policies was much more valuable than any cash we could have offered the state,” Caler-Bell said.

On May 24, the Department of Administrative and Financial Services — which handles the state’s real estate sales — notified Caler-Bell that Camden’s offer had been passed over for a $60,000 offer that was about to expire.

“All they looked at was the cash value of what they got from the sale of the land. It was very inflexible, rigid and unimaginative on the part of [the Department of Administrative and Financial Services],” Caler-Bell said.

If town officials knew that the only factor the state would consider was the price tag, Caler-Bell said the town would have offered “considerably more than $1.”

In the rejection of the offer, DAFS officials also expressed concern over the “stumbling block” that the public approval process that municipalities are required to go through for large projects like the solar farm.

“That’s crazy to me,” Caler-Bell said.

She argued that Camden voters would have overwhelmingly approved the project. Additionally, since there are restrictions on the property due to its hazardous history, Caler-Bell said a municipality with experience in dealing with hazardous waste sites would be the “perfect steward” for the site.

“Everybody is very frustrated and very disappointed,” Caler-Bell said. “We were hopeful that with this new administration, they would show a great deal more willingness to work with municipalities. But I think that everyone is feeling like we were very much dismissed.”

Caler-Bell said town officials have not completely given up hope about acquiring the former Union Chemical site, but they are also considering other properties for the solar farm.

A message left for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services’ spokesperson was not returned.

 



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