Communities in Hancock County and beyond — and the Municipal Review Committee that represents them — might want to give additional thought to their support for the Fiberight solid waste processing facility proposed for construction in Hampden.
Eight members of the Maine Legislature’s Environmental and Natural Resources Committee — including the two chairmen and members both Republican and Democrat — have asked the Department of Environmental Protection to delay issuance of a solid waste draft license for the facility until or unless several concerns are more adequately addressed. The Natural Resources Council of Maine, an environmental organization, has taken a similar position in its comments to the DEP, noting that “many of the findings made within the draft license appear to be based on unsubstantiated assertions of the applicant, rather than grounded on solid data.”
Both communications to the DEP bolster arguments that uncertainties and unknowns surrounding the financing, construction and eventual operation of the proposed trash-to-gas facility pose unacceptable risks to the municipalities that have made commitments or are being asked to support the proposal.
The legislative committee, which has jurisdiction over environmental policy in Maine, told the DEP that the Fiberight project does not follow the waste management hierarchy set forth in Maine law and that the “financial submissions are insufficient to demonstrate that Fiberight and the MRC have reasonable access to the funds necessary to design, construct, operate and maintain the proposed facility.”
The committee observed that the Fiberight process requires that organics continue to be mixed into the waste stream, though the Legislature has directed otherwise. Further, said the committee, the waste volume reduction proposed by Fiberight (70 to 80 percent) stands “in stark contrast to the PERC [Penobscot Energy Recovery Co.] facility, which reduces the volume of waste by approximately 90 percent.” That would leave two to three times as much material to be landfilled than is currently the case, said the committee.
In the period between the expiration of the existing PERC contracts in 2018 and the predicted operational start of the Fiberight facility, continued the committee, all waste would be transported to the Crossroads Landfill in Norridgewock. “Allowing this open-ended landfilling of Fiberight’s waste would completely undermine the solid waste hierarchy,” under which landfilling is the last of the solid waste management options that should be allowed.
The committee also noted that the design proposal for the Fiberight facility “has been a moving target with no firm design on which to base cost estimates.” That reflects the fact that, while many of the 187 towns and cities represented by the MRC have committed to Fiberight, others remain committed to the PERC facility in Orrington. As a result, MRC and Fiberight officials recently scaled back the annual waste tonnage goal for the Fiberight facility from 150,000 tons to 110,000 tons.
The committee requested that the DEP require the Fiberight facility “to comply with Maine’s solid waste hierarchy, including during the ‘bridge’ period, and that the applicants be required to provide specific financial assurance before a final permit is issued.”
In its letter to the DEP, the Natural Resources Council voiced concern that the MRC intends to use the Tip Fee Stabilization Fund, accumulated over time through contributions from MRC member municipalities to help stabilize budget planning, to fund land acquisition, road and stormwater facilities, water and sewer utilities and natural gas, electric and telecommunications facilities for the proposed Fiberight plant.
“NRCM believes that this fund technically belongs to the member towns and that money used from this fund is in fact an investment by the towns,” wrote Sarah Lakeman, the NRCM sustainable Maine project director. “Many municipalities and taxpayers were led to believe that they are not obligated to invest, or take financial risk, in the proposed facility by signing the joinder agreement with MRC, but in effect they are. Towns are gambling on this facility with taxpayer funds.”
The NRCM also shared the legislative committee members’ concerns about financing, commenting that “additional DEP analysis of operating costs and projected revenue would be appropriate and is a necessary part of determining financial ability” of the Fiberight proposal.
The DEP’s contention that Fiberight has demonstrated the technical ability to operate a similar, smaller scale waste processing facility located in Virginia also was challenged by the NRCM. The council noted that the company’s CEO has acknowledged, in an email to town officials, that the Virginia plant is a research and development facility whose main purpose is to gather data, and is not a commercial production plant. According to the NRCM, the Virginia facility has processed an average of just 286.2 tons of waste per year from 2012 to 2015. “We believe that drawing information from tiny test batches and assuming that you will get the same results at a scale of at least 384 times greater is highly risky and ill-advised,” wrote Lakeman.
It is becoming more and more evident that Fiberight’s proposal — separating recyclable materials and non-organic matter from the mixed waste stream and putting organics into an anaerobic digester to produce biogas — has not yet proved itself on an industrial scale. Meanwhile, the PERC plant in Orrington, now nearly 30 years old, has been well-maintained and updated and is position to provide years of continued service. Even if its tipping fees are somewhat higher than those proposed for the Fiberight facility, PERC offers a proven technology and a long history and record that can readily be examined.
Gambling on a proposal that, more and more, appears to be a speculative and unproven venture is a risky and unwise use of taxpayer dollars.