ELLSWORTH — For years, the Maine towns that make up the nonprofit Municipal Review Committee (MRC) have trucked their trash to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. (PERC) plant in Orrington.
That is, until April 1.
Last year, a Maryland-based company, Fiberight, enticed more than half of the MRC’s 187 member towns to send their garbage to the state-of-the-art Fiberight facility now under construction in Hampden.
The towns that remained with MRC and Fiberight, numbering 115, agreed to switch from PERC to the Hampden facility, which hadn’t been built yet.
The Fiberight plant was due to open on April 1, but the opening has been delayed for as much as six months.
According to Greg Lounder, MRC’s executive director, the Fiberight facility may not be open until September. Craig Stuart-Paul, Fiberight’s CEO, told reporters earlier this year that the Hampden plant would be open in July.
In the interim, MRC has had to rely on its backup plan: a landfill in central Maine.
Last month, MRC had to cancel an initial plan to allow its member communities to continue trucking their trash to PERC, meaning all trash from those towns is being sent to landfills instead of energy-generating plants.
Lounder said the recent deal with PERC fell through because a waste facility that’s been contracted with MRC for years as a backup location wouldn’t agree to it.
That facility, the Crossroads Landfill run by Waste Management in Norridgewock, has a contract with MRC’s member towns to receive their waste in the event that there was an issue with the primary facility.
In this case, MRC’s main contract is with Fiberight, which converts waste into biofuels. But Fiberight’s Hampden facility isn’t complete, so MRC is sending trash to the backup site.
The PERC deal was sought as a way to reduce the transport burden on towns and to keep generating energy from waste as opposed to burying trash in Maine’s landfills.
As of early February, MRC had a deal with PERC that would have allowed some of the more than 100 towns in its network to send trash to PERC’s Orrington plant. By the end of March that plan had fallen through.
“We worked hard to obtain the consent required,” Lounder said in an interview April 11. “We weren’t able to obtain that third party consent [from the Norridgewock staff] … that backup arrangement was put in place three years ago, and I think that’s an important part of the story that’s getting lost.”
MRC did put together an agreement with Waste Management that allows some member towns to deliver their waste to Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town. That deal stipulated that the Norridgewock facility would receive trash from other sources to replace the MRC towns sending waste to Old Town.
As a result, some town officials, Blue Hill and Surry among them, have explored sending their waste to the Orrington facility anyway. PERC began circulating flyers explaining the costs associated with that option. The document read, “This is not a solicitation.”
MRC is now threatening to sue member communities that send their trash to Orrington.
Lounder sent a notice to towns declaring that “joining members and haulers that deliver MSW to PERC as suggested by the PERC handout, thereby disregarding instructions from and contractual obligations to the MRC, will be exposing their municipalities to significant legal liability.”
The April 5 message to towns, delivered in bold, italic fonts and underlines, bluntly told towns that they should stick to MRC’s plan.
“Do not be misled by the handout,” Lounder wrote.
On April 11, he said towns had a contract with MRC that included as much flexibility as possible, but that sending waste to PERC would violate their agreement. He also said MRC perceived PERC’s handout as attempts to bring in business.
“We felt that PERC was soliciting business arrangements,” Lounder said.
Ted O’Meara, in an interview earlier this month, reiterated that PERC officials were not soliciting business from MRC communities, but simply providing information on their services.
O’Meara said he found some communities to be concerned that their trash would be sent to landfills in Norridgewock or Old Town, which are farther away from Hancock County towns than Orrington. He also expressed concern that all of the waste from those towns — more than 100,000 tons, according to various estimates — would go to a landfill instead of being processed into energy at an incinerator such as PERC’s.
In O’Meara’s reading, that could potentially violate Maine law. He pointed to a 1989 state law, amended in 2007, that requires municipalities to prioritize incineration over land disposal. Landfills were listed on that bottom of that law’s “hierarchy” for dealing with garbage.
Lounder said he was certain MRC’s plan was within the hierarchy and wouldn’t go against Maine law. In fact, he said, MRC’s strong preference was to send waste to incinerators. But the backup agreement wouldn’t allow it.
“This waste is moving the wrong direction on Maine’s Solid Waste Management Hierarchy and is having negative impacts on sustainable materials management in Maine,” the Natural Resources Council of Maine wrote in a press release on the issue.
As of January, Fiberight CEO Craig Stuart-Paul was telling reporters the plant would be complete and ready for waste deliveries in July. In last week’s interview, Lounder said he expected the Fiberight facility to be open in September, though he deferred to Fiberight’s estimation as likely more accurate.
He said he felt the transition since April 1 has been going smoothly.
“Everybody’s working well together,” he said. “We’re hearing, here in the second week, despite the challenges of delivering municipal solid waste, that things are going well.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article contained errors. The Fiberight facility now under construction in Hampden is not an incinerator. The plant will separate trash into component materials and generate biofuel.
Craig Stuart-Paul, chief executive of Fiberight, said the statement attributed to him regarding the opening of the Fiberight plant was incomplete. He has clarified as follows: “For the record, we will start accepting waste as soon as our recycling equipment is installed this summer, and we will ramp up production in a disciplined manner to maximize recycling over landfilling or incineration. While landfilling is anathema to our core ethos, we must respect existing contracts that the MRC, responsibly, put in place three years ago to ensure sanitary disposal of waste in our region.”