The better part of valor



The Municipal Review Committee (MRC) voted last Thursday to allow member towns to rely, temporarily, on their former trash-to-energy partner, the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. (PERC), for garbage disposal.

The decision was rational and expedient. It also was painful. Had everything gone according to plan, the Municipal Review Committee’s 115 member towns would be sending their trash to their new waste-disposal partner, Fiberight, whose plant is under construction in Hampden. But things have not gone according to plan. The Fiberight facility did not meet its construction deadline.

Fiberight’s deadline failure was not unforeseen. In the event of a delayed opening, the MRC had negotiated for its trash, in the meantime, to be landfilled — buried — in an Old Town or Norridgewock dump. Unforeseen, however, was how long this last-resort alternative was to remain in play.

“Our understanding was that any bridge agreement was going to be short-term,” said Blue Hill Selectman Jim Schatz. People in his town thought the landfilling would be a matter of weeks. “It wasn’t going to be months,” Schatz said.

The Municipal Review Committee deal with the landfill owners did not include a PERC escape clause. But last week, the municipal consortium’s board finally voted 7-2 to allow member towns to truck their trash to PERC. Unlike the trash-to-biofuel recycler that is Fiberight, PERC incinerates trash in order to generate electricity. Both Fiberight (once it gets going) and PERC keep solid waste out of landfills: a plus.

The vote to allow a return to PERC was not unanimous because, as the two dissenters noted, the landfill alternative was in the new contract all along. But when a remote option becomes an objectionable reality, human dynamics take the field. Contractual agreement or not, what needed to be done was done. The debate preceding the vote was intense and the cost — literally — will hurt: a $90-a-ton tipping fee at PERC plus a $30-a-ton compensation fee to the landfill, which will lose some portion of its volume. For many of the towns, there is consolation in the savings achieved by shorter trucking distances.

The moral of this story may be an affirmation of the old saying that discretion is the better part of valor. The MRC board exercised discretion and life goes on. Less lofty is the lesson, ever in need of a refresher course, that predicting the opening date of any ambitious project — be it a new mouse lab in Ellsworth or a state-of-the-art recycler in Hampden — is an invitation to disappointment and unrest.