Digging the hole deeper

They say that breaking up is hard to do but for the Municipal Review Committee — the organization that now represents 115 municipalities in the disposal of municipal solid waste — it has been disastrous.

Years ago, after an unsuccessful bid to renegotiate a long-standing contract with the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. (PERC) plant in Orrington ahead of a 2018 expiration date, the MRC decided to investigate new options for the disposal of municipal solid waste for its members. The group initially looked to site a new landfill in the Greenbush area before ultimately deciding to partner with Fiberight to build a different kind of waste-to-energy facility in Hampden. The MRC in 2016, when it represented 187 towns, asked its members to choose: Stay with PERC past 2018 or follow the MRC to a new partnership with Fiberight.

Out of the 187 towns, 115 stayed with the MRC and pursued development of the Hampden plant. After more than a year of delays, MRC members got to use the facility for all of six months before it closed for financial reasons in May 2020.

The plant remains shuttered and now the MRC has secured a deal with the bondholder trustees to allow a final sale of the facility by June 30 — even if that means the MRC is doing the buying. The problem is that the MRC doesn’t have enough money to get the plant up and running. It is seeking investors among its membership. In its April newsletter, the MRC says $20 million will restart the facility and cover operating costs “until the facility achieves profitability.” What if it doesn’t? A joining member, as outlined in a presentation given last month, can volunteer to “co-sign for a portion of MRC’s loan or loan cash to the MRC.” A joining member could also volunteer to “make loan payments if cash is not available from other sources.”

Buying a trash facility with the backing of its members towns is not a solution to dig the MRC out of the hole it now finds itself in. Without a concrete and specific plan to get the plant back up and running, voters of any municipality should balk at the very idea of their town become a “joining member” and signing for any kind of stake in a yet-to-be-named venture.

From the start, as the MRC was exploring its options, it should have engaged its members better and sought a solution that all 187 could agree to. Instead, it divided its membership and made it so that the new plant was not financially sound for an investor/operator.

The rest is recent history.

The MRC should reach out to PERC and figure out a way back in. If the MRC needs to purchase the Hampden plant at an upcoming sale, it should then resell it to the highest bidder and invest any proceeds back into better waste management solutions for its members. While the PERC plant might not be the ideal solution, it is better than no solution, which is exactly what the MRC has right now. And if you talk to those who manage towns that stayed with PERC, the report is that the sky did not fall. Despite a slightly higher per-ton tipping fee, everything else has stayed the same.

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