BIDDEFORD – Residents who are fed up with more than 24 years of smells from Maine Energy Recovery Co.’s downtown trash incinerator pleaded with state officials Thursday for more stringent emission controls and better enforcement.

“It’s gotten better but it still stinks probably once a week,” said Chris Betjemann of Biddeford, one of about 30 residents and business people from Biddeford and Saco who attended a two-hour meeting at Biddeford City Hall.

“This is not working,” the Main Street resident said of the current regulations. “Please, we need some help.”

The meeting was a way for the Department of Environmental Protection to gather input on a proposed license renewal for MERC. The facility’s license was valid through 2005, but state law allows the company to continue operating under its old license as long as it has applied for a new one.

Thursday’s meeting focused on the emission of volatile organic compounds, which would be regulated differently under the new license. Several residents and Biddeford Code Enforcement Officer Brian Phinney said the release of VOCs corresponds to odors emanating from the plant.

Phinney argued that the new license would permit the plant to release more VOCs than its current license. He said the DEP must require better monitoring and tighter enforcement of efforts to keep the compounds from being released into the air.

The plant is supposed to have negative air pressure, meaning the air and the odors inside the facility are burned as part of the combustion process. If air is drawn into the plant, then odors shouldn’t be able to escape.

But Phinney said the company’s own data shows it routinely lacks the negative pressure it is supposed to maintain, and several residents said the facility’s large doors are often open.

The DEP’s Eric Kennedy said the company is not being required to install certain new technology because the cost would equal $11,000 to $47,000 per ton of VOCs removed, which is considered inefficient. He said the license does seek to ensure that negative pressure is maintained within the building.

Kim Roseberry faulted the plant’s management for many of the problems. She said that in 2009, when MERC had 94 odor complaints, Ecomaine in Portland had none.

Many residents said they no longer call to complain about odors because they feel it does no good.

Peter Morelli, director of planning and development for Saco, said the studies that MERC conducted to determine emission levels were often done on cool days, not at the height of summer, when the odor is worst. He said the plant must burn the trash as it comes in, not allow it to build up on the tipping floor.

He urged the regulators to approve a license that reduces odors “or issue no license, to end this assault on the people of Biddeford and Saco.”

Tom Kircher said the license would allow 75 tons of volatile organic compounds a year. “It’s pretty much like somebody tipping over a 55-gallon drum of some solvent every day in downtown,” he said.

His wife, Jane Kircher, said the cost of new technology to clean more VOCs from the plant’s emission seem small for a multimillion-dollar operation.

The DEP officials said they will consider the input gathered Thursday, particularly on ways to monitor emissions, and could incorporate it into future drafts of the license.

Bryce Sproul, director of licensing and enforcement, said one consideration for the DEP is to maintain an equal level of regulation with the other waste-to-energy plants in the state. However, he said MERC could face additional license restrictions because of its location in an urban downtown.

Mayor Joanne Twomey said after the meeting that she is not optimistic.

“They haven’t shown me a reason not to be negative,” she said.

The DEP set no timetable for when the next version of the license might be ready for comment but it is accepting written comments through July 25. Anyone who is dissatisfied with the license can appeal it to the Board of Environmental Protection, and some residents suggested it could end up in court.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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