by Andy O’Brien
Free Press news story
In the coming weeks, Camden, Rockport, Hope and Lincolnville will hold special town meetings to decide where to send their 6,000 tons of annual household trash after March 31, 2018. That date marks the expiration of a lucrative electricity contract between the utility Emera Maine and the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. (PERC) waste-to-energy incinerator, which has helped subsidize the plant for the past few decades.
If they choose to stay with PERC, waste disposal fees for the region will go up, and questions remain as to whether the plant will be able to remain financially viable. PERC maintains that its facility is the most reliable option, even though only 25 towns have committed to stay with the company. On the other end, the municipally governed Municipal Review Committee (MRC) and Maryland-based fiber-to-fuel company Fiberight are aggressively lobbying towns to sign on to their own proposed $35 million waste-to-biogas facility in Hampden. At the end of the day, it’s unlikely there’s room enough for both plants.
“The simple facts are that we now have over 100 towns and 100,000 tons committed to our project, and PERC has maybe 20,000,” said Fiberight CEO Craig Stuart-Paul. “There are insufficient commercial tons in the area to make up the difference to allow PERC to operate successfully as a WTE plant.”
But PERC and its allies aren’t going down without a fight, as the epic trash tug-o-war plays out in town after town across the state. PERC spokesman Ted O’Meara said the company is “totally confident” that it will continue operating post-2018. “The MRC is in no position to determine whether PERC can operate after 2018,” he said, “but they continue to attack PERC to cover up their own shortcomings and the fact that there is no facility like theirs operating anywhere in the world today.”
But the clock is ticking. Many local towns have already made their decisions, including Belfast, which chose the MRC/Fiberight option, and Rockland, which opted to leave the MRC for Portland-based incinerator Ecomaine.
Ecomaine supporters suffered a defeat last month when grassroots activists mobilized voters in Camden, Rockport and Hope to overwhelmingly reject a strong recommendation from the Mid-Coast Solid Waste Corp. (MCSWC) board and the three town select boards to pursue a contract with the Portland incinerator. Only Lincolnville supported going to Ecomaine. In order to schedule special town meetings, the MCSWC board, which includes representatives from the four towns, now needs to make another recommendation.
Following last month’s lopsided votes, MRC, the municipally owned nonprofit that represents the four towns’ interest in PERC, has been urging the MCSWC board to reconsider signing on to the $35 million Fiberight facility. Fiberight claims the plant will have the capacity to convert 100 percent of the organic material in the waste stream into compressed natural gas by using an anaerobic digestion process. Depending on where MCSWC towns choose to send their waste, factoring in transportation and disposal fees, it will cost about $526,000 per year to use the Crossroads landfill in Norridgewock, $535,000 for Fiberight, $615,000 for Ecomaine and $628,000 at PERC.
So far, the MRC claims towns in its territory have committed enough annual tonnage to make the Fiberight facility viable, but it says it needs the midcoast towns to make a decision soon so it finalize its plans.
“As we reported in a June 7 email, we fully expect that Fiberight will be sized to the towns that commit by June 30,” wrote the MRC in a June 27 memo. “With the smaller plant size a viable option, MRC members who elect to ‘wait and see’ or who make a commitment elsewhere that does not work out may later find themselves stranded.”
Differing Interpretations of Voters’ Rejection
During a four-hour meeting last Thursday, June 30, MCSWC board members expressed differing interpretations of the voters’ rejection of Ecomaine. Several members signaled that they still aren’t sold on Fiberight despite the recent votes.
“What I heard in Camden [is that] a lot of them wanted more information before they made a vote,” said French. “I didn’t hear anything about, go to Fiberight or not go to Ecomaine. They wanted more information before a new vote.”
Rockport Selectman Bill Chapman had a different take: “Our citizens have told us in three towns ‘No’ and in one town ‘Yes.’ We should be respecting their decision because that’s why we take questions to them,” he said.
Meanwhile, a bitter war colored by financial interests, environmental concerns and ideology is raging behind the scenes. On one side, a peculiar alliance of PERC’s majority owner USA Energy, Casella Waste Solutions, and the Natural Resources Council of Maine are leading the charge to defeat the MRC/Fiberight plan. On the other side, local environmental activists, the Maine Resource Recovery Association (a nonprofit that assists MCSWC’s recycling program) and the public officials and solid waste experts who serve on the MRC board are fighting to keep towns from leaving the municipal cooperative.
The Municipal Review Committee’s Case
The MRC, with its 25 years representing PERC member towns, contends that it has the best interests of its member towns in mind. As its board said in a letter to Mid-Coast
Solid Waste, it began planning in 2007 and spent four years looking at other options after it determined that PERC would not be financially viable after 2018. The board spent another 18 months evaluating 15 responses from various waste processing companies before settling with Fiberight. Members of the board visited Fiberight’s demonstration facility in Lawrenceville, Virgnia, as well as similar facilities in Alabama, Ohio, Toronto and Quebec. Fiberight’s demonstration facility was reviewed by a team of researchers from the University of Maine’s Forest Bioproducts Research Institute, who determined that the company’s processing technology is “sound” and similar to existing equipment and processing steps found in the pulp-and-paper industry.
Fiberight claims it will also have the capacity to remove recyclables from the waste stream before the waste goes through an anaerobic digestion process to convert organic waste and food scraps to compressed natural gas. The company claims that the rebates from the sale of the gas would be used to bring down disposal costs for member towns. Last year, the MRC board, which includes Mid-Coast Solid Waste’s longtime manager Jim Guerra, voted unanimously to pursue a contract with Fiberight.
“The MRC is confident that the Fiberight project will move forward,” wrote MRC board chair Chip Reeves, who is also Bar Harbor’s director of public works. “After eight years of effort, we believe that we are offering Maine communities a project that will process MSW with the highest level of diversion from landfill at the lowest environmental impact and at the most affordable cost with the most convenience of any option or technology available.”
However, NRCM Sustainable Maine Project Director Sarah Lakeman worries that the Fiberight proposal may not be able to deliver on its promises. She pointed to Virginia Department of Environmental Quality data on the company’s Virigina facility, which showed very low recycling rates. In a note to MCSWC, Lakeman said, “In their small demonstration facility in Virginia, they have yet to reach over a 42.8% recovery rate. And in 2014 it was as low as 4.99%. In 2015 for example, they only processed 90 tons of material for the entire year, and 76 of those tons ended up at the landfill.”
In a letter to the Virginia DEQ dated June 15, Fiberight Process Engineer Dan Caldwell admitted that it was only able to recover 14 tons of the 90 tons of waste it received in 2015. He stated that Fiberight is “exploring commercial options for the digested material but have not sold significant quantities of it yet.” Fiberight CEO Craig Stuart-Paul wrote that Lakeman’s summary “grossly distorts the truth.” He argued that the Virginia plant is only a demonstration facility used for “scientific research to support commercial applications,” but not meant for commercial use. He added that the Lawrenceville, Virginia, plant produces wet cellulose, which is not part of the Hampden plan.
“The commercial design for Hampden is based on commercial representations of [mechanical biological treatment] plants both in the United States and Europe,” wrote Stuart-Paul.
He added that the company’s plan was viable enough to attract interest from waste-to-energy giant Covanta to operate the facility, although the company has not yet fully committed in writing. Lakeman responded that it “seems like it’s a fully integrated facility similar to the Hampden proposal when it’s convenient, and just a small test batch facility when it’s not.”
Opponents of the MRC/Fiberight plan are also counting on an effort to upend Fiberight’s permit application with the DEP. Recently the state approved Fiberight’s draft permit, and the deadline for public comment ended Tuesday. A DEP spokesman said that the department will now review the information and after that it can either issue the final licenses or request an extension if necessary. Once the final licenses have been issued, then an appeal could be filed with the Board of Environmental Protection. If an appeal is granted, that could potentially delay or derail the process.
The Fight Over Commercial Waste
PERC and its partner Casella Waste have also challenged MRC’s plan to direct all waste handled by commercial haulers to the Fiberight facility. They argue that current ordinances in larger cities like Bangor, Brewer and Orono that direct commercial waste to a specific processing facility cannot be enforced due to a series of court rulings. Therefore, Casella insists that it will continue to haul its waste to PERC even if the towns voted to send their trash to Fiberight.
“Fiberight may not be getting the trash they propose,” Fiberight opponent Rep. Joan Welsh (D-Rockport) told the MCSWC board. “MRC may not have all the amount of trash that they think they do because they’re relying on a state law that allows them to haul trash to Fiberight and that law was ruled unconstitutional.”
However, waste management consultant George Aronson, who has advised the MRC for the past 25 years, maintains that the group has done an extensive legal analysis of the ordinances and determined that the towns can amend the ordinances in order to meet constitutional muster. He added that because Fiberight is offering a lower disposal rate than PERC, the free market will likely determine where the waste goes anyway.
“In fact, the waste is not the property of any commercial hauler,” Aronson told the MCSWC board by phone. “The waste is the property of the waste generator who can select commercial haulers at a competitive fee.”
The Financing Question
According to the MRC and Fiberight, the company needs to know how much trash towns will be sending to the plant before it can finalize plans for the facility and secure financing. The MRC says it is aiming to close on the deal in September or October. But Camden Selectman and MCSWC board member John French was not convinced.
“[Stuart-Paul is] telling us the financing is not in place and that was something that they said that they were already doing,” said French. “Covanta was going to be the money up front was the way I understood it, putting this technology together. Now it’s none of that. They need to go out and raise anywhere from $35 to … $79 million depending on the size of the plant?… It sounds like a lot of the investors don’t want to get on board until they see an operational plant.”
However, several members of the audience at last week’s meeting reminded French that Covanta had only signed on to operate the plant, not to fully finance it.
Camden Attorney Paul Gibbons noted that Fiberight’s financing plan is the same way PERC was originally built. He said that the lenders typically want to make sure that a certain number of customers have signed up and that the developer has secured a permit from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) before they agree to invest.
“For any financing, the [investors] are going to say, you have to have the tonnage to operate this plant before we’re going to invest the money,” said Gibbons. “It’s a scheme where they have to get these commitments from these towns to commit that to them by a vote before it’s operational. That’s just predictable.”
He added that “nobody in their right mind” would invest the resources that Fiberight has spent if it had no financial backing at all.
“There has to be a real chance that they’re going to get this financing, but you’re not going to get it before … you make a vote to go to them,” he said. “Because they need that first before they get the financing.”
Tensions on the Board Flare Up
MCSWC’s board members devoted a considerable amount of time at last Thursday’s meeting to interrogating activists and the MRC’s waste management consultant George Aronson on the inner workings of the MRC. At one point in the meeting tensions erupted after MCSWC chair Art Durity and Hope representative Tom Ford scrutinized the connections between the MRC, Fiberight and a pro-MRC activist group known as the Mid-Coast Political Action Coalition (MPAC). Durity questioned local MPAC activists on whether they had coordinated their activities with the MRC and if they had accepted any in-kind donations from the group. Lincolnville MPAC activist Josh Gerritsen said that they had only received information from the MRC. Ford also questioned Aronson and the activists at length over who writes the MRC’s memos and press releases. Aronson replied that the nine-member MRC board writes its letters and other documents collaboratively.
“Are we going to nitpick every statement that is made tonight because if we are, I am prepared to nitpick on other things as well,” said Rockport Selectman Chapman. “But I thought we were here to listen to these people.”
Distrust of the Developer
Throughout the meeting, Durity also expressed particular distrust of Fiberight’s CEO.
“If we were to go with Fiberight, we’re betting that this one man, Craig Stuart-Paul, can pull off this deal,” Durity told The Free Press before the meeting. “Now God forbid he has an accident next week and is incapacitated or dies, who carries that forward? Where’s the team? Who’s his CFO? Who’s his COO? Who’s his chief technology officer? Where is the apparatus that says this project survives Craig Stuart-Paul.… We need to know more about the man that we’re vetting.”
Aronson noted that while Stuart-Paul has been the face of Fiberight in Maine, the company does have a board of directors, technical staff and investors who have invested $10 million of their own money into the technology. And they all have names, titles and duties.
“It’s not just Craig,” said Aronson. “He has a very active board that’s heavily involved in soliciting the proposals and negotiating for financing and working on their development effort.”
Aronson added that before Fiberight, in 1996, Stuart-Paul built Fairfax Recycling, Inc., which processed 150,000 tons of recycled materials before it was sold to the company Waste Management. He said that if Stuart-Paul died, the plant would continue operating. Ford then questioned whether Aronson had a conflict of interest because he was getting paid by the MRC for his advice.
“George worked for MRC since the early ’90s,” said Ford. “During that time does anyone want to speculate how much income he’s derived from that connection. I’m sure it’s extremely substantial.”
Chapman noted that Ecomaine’s representative Lissa Bittermann is also getting paid.
“But Lissa hasn’t been working for 25 years and she’s an employee of the organization that she works for,” said Ford. “George is an independent consultant. There is a difference.”
PERC Jumps Back In
With Camden, Rockport and Hope voters having rejected Ecomaine and several town officials still skeptical of Fiberight, PERC has re-entered the conversation, despite board members largely dismissing its proposal last spring.
“We realize we were not your first choice, but we realize that the door has been opened,” said PERC spokesman Ted O’Meara. “And we would respectfully ask you to take another look at PERC.”
Although the MRC has concluded that PERC’s technology is outdated and will no longer be financially viable without the electric subsidies, PERC says it has come up with a plan to make it work. At the MCSWC meeting, O’Meara told the board that the plant’s technology still works well and that PERC has a proven track record. He noted that the plant will have paid off all of its debt by 2018 and towns will no longer have to commit to send a set amount of waste to the plant. PERC has also partnered with the Exeter Agri-Energy anaerobic digesting facility, which can take food waste and other organic material.
O’Meara said that although the towns will no longer receive rebates from PERC after 2018, they can use their $1.5 million share of equity in the plant to lower waste disposal fees. He said that contrary to MRC’s conclusions, an engineering report by Portland-based HDR Engineering, Inc. determined last year that the plant can continue operating for the next 20 years.
“In HDR’s opinion, the PERC Facility appears to be performing better than other similar Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) type facilities, and the conditions of the equipment and facilities also appears to be above average,” the company stated. “The maintenance practices that are in place have led to the ability of the facility to continue to operate at historical operating levels with no significant degradation of processing rates, boiler efficiency, or steam cycle efficiencies or drop in system availabilities.”
However, in a response memo, the MRC disputed the engineering firm’s conclusions about the plant’s future viability and questioned the potential costs of keeping it running. According to PERC, if for whatever reason the plant can’t perform, its backup plan is to continue operation as a mixed-waste processing system (known as “dirty MRF”) that could pull out recyclables from a mixed-waste stream similar to Fiberight’s plan, but without the biogas process.
“PERC would remove remaining recyclables and wastes that may be processed separately and would landfill only the residuals that cannot be reused or recycled,” wrote the company’s attorney James Katsiaficas in notes to the Hermon Town Council last week, adding, “This is not the preferred waste strategy for PERC, but it’s a backup if MSW volumes are insufficient to allow it to operate as a [waste-to-energy] facility.”
Stuart-Paul reacted to the announcement with amusement: “This, despite months of trumpeting that our mixed-waste processing solution is nothing more than an experiment!”
The Next Step
It’s unclear how the MCSWC board will vote when it holds its next meeting, on July 27, but one thing is certain — when the towns’ residents are asked to vote again on what to do with their trash, Fiberight opponents will be stepping up their game.
Board member Tom Ford argued that the board did a “poor job of articulating” the reasons behind the board’s initial recommendation.
“Between the efforts of our young citizens and technology with Facebook and YouTube and fliers and so forth and the press reporting on that and people … writing letters to the editor, the public was charged to really think thoughtfully about some of the proposals,” said Ford. “Nothing came from us.”
MCSWC board member Leonard Lookner said he had been looking for a way to compromise with the Fiberight supporters. “The energy that is questioning our decision is new. It’s young, it’s from a part of the community that we don’t hear a lot from, but we always say we want to hear from,” he said. “And they’re trying to tell us something, and I keep trying to figure out what is it that they’re trying to tell us. I have made the decision that they’re trying to tell us that they want us to dispose of our waste in a way that’s most environmentally sound.”
Lookner then turned to Ford and asked him what motivated Gerritsen, Fiberight supporter Allison McKellar and the rest of the MPAC activists to oppose the board’s recommendation. As Gerritsen raised his hand, Durity directed him to put it down.
“No, we’re done with public comment,” Durity said.
“I think as forward-thinking young people, they’re looking for the least carbon footprint and the most enticing technology to deal with a serious crisis that we have as human beings with solid waste,” Ford answered.
Shortly after, Lookner and French voted against requested an extension of MRC’s June 30 deadline for towns to commit to Fiberight. The rest of the board, however, agreed to asking for the extension.
At the end of the meeting, the board also agreed to invite Stuart-Paul and a member of his team to the next MCSWC meeting to answer questions. Whatever the board decides, Durity says it’s critical that the four towns come to an agreement that they can get their voters to approve. Because if they can’t come to an agreement, the MCSWC could dissolve, which would be expensive for all of them. But despite the acrimony and divisiveness, Durity added that the debate is proof that voters are finally putting the environment first.
“If we were to look at this 10 years ago, it would have been a debate between environmentalists and budget hawks. And the budget hawks would have won,” he said. “What we have today is a debate between one group of environmentalists and another about what is the best path forward…. No matter how this turns out, the fact that we’re having this debate is a sign of fundamental change, the kind of change we need if we’re going to have any impact on the environment. All of this is an amazingly good thing.”- See more at: http://freepressonline.com/Content/Download-the-current-issue-as-a-pdf/Features/Article/Midcoast-Towns-Struggle-with-Trash-Tug-of-War/93/78/46502#sthash.SSYpUoXj.dpuf