Eight members of a legislative committee are calling on the Department of Environmental Protection to withhold a permit for the controversial waste-to-energy project until concerns over state law and funding are addressed.
By Madeline St. Amour, Staff Writer
Central Maine newspapers news story
A controversial proposal to build a waste-to-energy plant in Hampden that would handle trash disposal for more than 100 central Maine communities shouldn’t be granted a state permit yet because its plans would violate Maine law and are not proven to be financially feasible.
That’s according to a letter sent this week by a bipartisan group of eight state legislators, writing to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection about the proposed Fiberight plant.
The legislators, who are members the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, including its two chairman, say they’re “very concerned that the draft permits” submitted for the Fiberight proposal “do not reflect an accurate or consistent interpretation of two policy issues of the utmost importance addressed in statute and rule.”
“Specifically, we are troubled by the manner in which the draft permits address the solid waste hierarchy and the financial capacity requirements under Maine law,” they wrote in the July 5 letter, addressed to Julie Churchill, the assistant director of the Office of Innovation and Assistance at the DEP.
The allegations call into question the legitimacy of the massive waste project just days after a deadline set by the Municipal Review Committee for towns and cities in Maine to commit to the proposal, which is planned to be up and running by April 1, 2018. The outcome affects taxpayers throughout central Maine, with millions of dollars in disposal fees and thousands of tons of trash hanging in the balance.
An MRC spokeswoman said Thursday the concerns raised by the legislators are not valid and that the Fiberight proposal is viable.
The MRC represents 187 towns in a contract with the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. and has urged its members to sign on to the new venture, which it says is the more viable option after their PERC contracts expire in 2018.
Following the June 30 deadline, the MRC said 104 communities had committed to the Fiberight proposal, pledging a total of 118,639 tons of trash per year, including commercial and noncharter municipal trash.
The MRC initially said Fiberight needed 150,000 annual tons of trash for the operation to be viable, but recently scaled back those expectations and the scope of the plant. Fiberight is a Maryland-based company planning to build a first-of-its-kind, trash-to-biofuel waste management plant in Hampden after campaigning in Maine towns represented by the MRC all year.
MRC had to come together to find a regional alternative to PERC for its towns, or all parties would be in trouble, Jessamine Pottle, a spokesman for the Municipal Review Committee, said Thursday.
The MRC is choosing Fiberight over the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. because PERC’s contract with energy company Emera ends in 2018. While PERC has said it still will be viable post-2018, MRC does not think it will be the most economically viable option for communities. While 104 towns have signed on to Fiberight, others in central Maine are choosing instead to contract with local landfills.
The legislators who have written to the DEP say the department should require the Fiberight plant to “comply with Maine’s solid waste hierarchy … and that the applicants be required to provide specific financial assurance before a final permit is issued.” The letter is signed by the two chairman of the environment committee, Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, and Rep. Joan Welsh, D-Rockport; as well as Rep. Richard Campbell, R-Orrington; Rep. Robert Duchesne, D-Hudson; Rep. Denise Harlow, D-Portland; Rep. Ben Chipman, D-Portland; Rep. Dustin White, R-Washburn; and Rep. Andrew Buckland, R-Farmington.
The first concern they raise is waste management hierarchy. The DEP is required by law to evaluate new facilities in Maine against this hierarchy, which considers how to deal with trash in the following order: reduce, reuse, recycle, compost, process, change to energy and lastly, as a final option, burying trash in a landfill.
The legislators’ letter calls for “a solution that satisfies the hierarchy, and not issue a permit until that solution is in place.”
Sarah Lakeman, a sustainability expert with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the state’s largest environmental group, said she doesn’t consider Fiberight’s proposal to be the best option.
“I don’t think mixed-waste processing is a sustainable way to deal with waste,” she said in an interview Thursday. “It makes each commodity less desirable.”
A strategy of “divide and conquer,” she said, is one of the better options, as it increases accountability among residents who have to sort recyclables and begin to notice what they’re wasting.
“It’s hard to support new facilities that need to consume trash to support themselves,” Lakeman said, because then it is hard to focus on the first action in the hierarchy: reduce.
On average, Lakeman said waste management companies’ diversion rates are between 70 to 80 percent, meaning they handle that much waste in some other way before sending the final 20 to 30 percent to a landfill.
The state minimum diversion rate is 50 percent. The Fiberight proposal says it will have a rate of 70 to 80 percent, according to Pottle, of the MRC.
But the letter from state legislators says PERC’s diversion rate is about 90 percent. PERC sets aside 18 percent of incoming waste to send to a landfill before combusting any other waste, according to Pottle, who said she received the information from PERC. Pottle said PERC’s actual diversion rate is 62 to 65 percent.
The letter also mentioned Fiberight’s 10-year agreement with Waste Management at the Norridgewock Landfill, which allows Fiberight to send waste to the landfill if needed.
“It’s just plain good planning to have a backup,” Pottle said.
Fiberight plans to be operational by the time the PERC contract runs out in 2018. The plant also still can take waste through the first process and sort out recyclables if the second process, which makes the biofuels, has a problem.
Officials from both PERC and Fiberight didn’t return calls Thursday seeking comment.
The letter from legislators also says the financial submissions by Fiberight and MRC don’t show “reasonable access to the funds necessary” to build or maintain the Hampden plant. The legislators say they would like a “commitment of a specific dollar amount,” which, the letter says, “all other solid waste facilities have been held to under the law.”
In response, Pottle said Thursday: “It’s being backed by a multimillion-dollar company.”
Covanta, a sustainable waste and energy company based in New Jersey, is backing Fiberight, she said, and financing the construction and operation of the Hampden plant.
The legislators call for Fiberight and MRC to demonstrate that they “each have full access, including proper authorization, to a commitment of the specific amounts of funds necessary to construct and operate the facility,” and asked for a submission of contracts and letters of credit.
The plant also will have a process insurance bond so that if something goes wrong it can collect insurance. The MRC will be acting as the landlord of Fiberight and, if the company does not perform as planned, it can evict the company and bring in another.