Trash votes under way

ELLSWORTH — The first of 187 towns and cities — among them virtually all of Hancock County — has cast a vote on where to take its trash starting in 2018.

The Brewer City Council voted Jan. 26 to sign a 15-year agreement with the Municipal Review Committee (MRC) to send the city’s garbage to the yet-to-be-built Fiberight plant in Hampden.

The Bar Harbor Town Council is due to vote Feb. 16, and several more town councils or town meetings will be deciding the issue in the coming months.

The stakes are high for the two competitors in the tug-of-war over the tons of waste.

The current receiver, the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. (PERC) in Orrington, is fighting to keep its customers after Feb. 14, 2018, when federally mandated, favorable electric rates end.

The plant burns refuse to generate electricity. The higher rates paid for that power were federally mandated to encourage generation of alternative fuel.

The Municipal Review Committee represents the 187 towns and cities that contribute about 160,000 tons to the Orrington plant each year.

Members include every municipality in Hancock County except Ellsworth, Deer Isle and Eastbrook. MRC member communities stretch from Mars Hill in the north to Wiscasset in the south.

The MRC wants to spend $5 million from its $34-million member towns’ bank account to buy land in Hampden, ready it for development and then bring in Fiberight to build and operate an $80-million waste-to-biogas plant.

The Municipal Review Committee is hoping to have everyone on board by June in order to sign an agreement with the Maryland-based Fiberight promising to deliver a minimum of 150,000 tons of refuse.

Representatives of the Municipal Review Committee and the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. are meeting with local officials to plead their cases.

Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. officials spoke to the Ellsworth City Council Monday night at a workshop meeting. They told councilors PERC is a known quantity, that its facility is paid for, and that they work with municipalities to give them choices on how to deal with refuse (including recycling options).

Ellsworth’s trash currently goes to the Orrington facility, but since it is not a Municipal Review Committee member it pays more (in the high $70-per-ton range) than those communities that are members.

City officials said that rate has gone up and continues to increase, prompting them to examine the city’s solid waste options. Municipal Review Committee officials will make a similar presentation to the City Council in the future.

Ellsworth is not the only community that is not yet sure what to do.

Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings said the town does not feel prepared to vote on the issue at Town Meeting March 7.

“It feels like we don’t have enough information,” she said. “We are getting some competing information. Our attorneys are reviewing the contract. Every day there seems to be something new that comes out.”

Hermon Town Manager Roger Raymond asked for a legal review of the proposal put forth by the Municipal Review Committee.

He has declined to comment on the resulting memo, but did say it is important for the municipalities to stick together because the viability of any plan relies on a certain tonnage.

Fiberight said it needs 150,000 tons of trash each year to get out of the gate.

Representatives of the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. say they need 200,000 tons total — 90,000 of which must come from Municipal Review Committee communities.

“I have been managing communities for over 40 years,” Raymond said. “It’s a very complicated issue and there are a lot of unanswered questions.”

One thing that nagged at him is that the Municipal Review Committee has, until now, served as an advisor and agent for its towns and cities.

“They now will have much much more legislative authority and they will be an owner,” Raymond said. “They have a lot more skin in the game than they had before.”

“We want to make sure we select the option that is the most likely to succeed,” he said.

Nothing about the Municipal Review Committee proposal bothers Jim Guerra, manager of Midcoast Solid Waste Corp., which handles refuse for Camden, Rockport, Lincolnville and Hope.

Guerra is on the Municipal Review Committee’s nine-member board, which is elected by the greater membership.

The other board members are Chip Reeves of Bar Harbor, chairman; Sophie Wilson, Orono; Cathy Conlow, Bangor; Karen Fussell, Brewer; Elery Keene, Kennebec County; Ken Fletcher, Winslow; Barbara Veilleux, Penobscot County and Mike Roy, Waterville.

“I’m fully behind the Fiberight proposal,” Guerra said. “We’ve worked hard on it. The contracts were written by municipal people for municipalities. The PERC contracts were written for PERC.”

The Municipal Review Committee insists that current tipping fees — the cost of sending refuse to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. — will double to about $110 to $120 per ton when the favorable electrical rates expire in 2018.

Yet the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. is offering its customers tipping fees of $84.36 per ton for a 15-year contract or $89.57 per ton for a 10-year contract.

One clause would allow them to boost rates if the Consumer Price Index rises to a certain point — which is standard in contracts.

But the Municipal Review Committee challenges those figures, saying the current Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. proposal allows for a quarterly assessment based on the consumer price index.

Ted O’Meara, a spokesman for the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co., said the contract will be rewritten to settle the issue.

“They will still use the CPI for adjustments, just as they do now, but may go to a single annual adjustment rather than splitting the annual adjustment into four quarterly adjustments,” O’Meara said. “The MRC has tried to tell towns that PERC was going to use the full annual CPI every quarter, which simply wasn’t true.”

Also being disputed is whether the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. declared that it was making plans to shut the plant down in Orrington.

The statement was made in a 2011 memo after both sides met to discuss options post-2018. The meeting was held in Minnesota, where the majority owner of the Orrington plant, USA Energy Corp., is based.

The Oct. 14, 2011, memo was written by attorney Stephen Kaminski, who represents the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co., and sent to the Municipal Review Committee board members.

Chip Reeves, director of Public Works for Bar Harbor and chairman of the board for the Municipal Review Committee, quoted from the memo recently in his presentation to Lamoine selectmen.

He referred to one portion of a paragraph saying that USA Energy concluded it had no option but to close the Orrington plant because it was no longer economically feasible.

However, O’Meara said USA Energy discussed closing the plant only if the Municipal Review Committee declined to agree to terms proposed by USA Energy.

Those terms as outlined in the memo were that the Municipal Review Committee commits to deliver more than 125,000 tons of refuse each year; that the tipping fee might exceed $90 per ton, and that the municipalities accept another pricing scale for other sources of waste beyond 2017.

“The MRC has been selective in quoting from the letter,” O’Meara said.

The memo does state that the goal was to find a way to keep the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. in operation.

“Fundamentally, we are in agreement that, if possible, all those involved with PERC need to find a way to continue this legacy well beyond 2017,” Kaminski wrote in the memo.

Reporter Steve Fuller contributed to this story.

Jacqueline Weaver

Jacqueline Weaver

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Jacqueline's beat covers the eastern Hancock County towns of Lamoine through Gouldsboro as well as Steuben in Washington County. She was a reporter for the New York Times, United Press International and Reuters before moving to Maine. She also publicized medical research at Yale School of Medicine and scientific findings at Yale University for nine years.[email protected]
Jacqueline Weaver

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