A bill in the Legislature that would have enabled Casella Waste Systems to sell its Maine Energy Recovery Co. trash plant to the city of Biddeford is dead for this year.

The bill would have authorized the state to sell the Juniper Ridge landfill in Old Town to Casella. The company could have used the landfill to bury the waste that is now burned in Biddeford, and the city could have closed down the unpopular plant in its downtown.

But the Maine Senate, without debate, voted Monday not to send the bill to committee for consideration.

Biddeford officials and Casella vowed to seek other ways to move ahead with the plan.

“We’ll keep talking to Biddeford,” said Joe Fusco, a spokesman for Vermont-based Casella Waste Systems.

Alan Casavant, who is Biddeford’s mayor and represents the city in the state House of Representatives, said he recognized that, coming so late in this year’s legislative session, the proposal faced challenges. But he said he plans to meet with Casella this week.

He said “a big stumbling block” to closing the plant is the fact that Biddeford and 13 other communities have disposal contracts with MERC, and will need someplace to send their trash.

The proposal to close MERC, made public last week by the city and Casella, highlights the role of waste-to-energy plants in conserving Maine’s limited landfill space, as well as changing trends in trash disposal.

Fusco said Casella is moving away from burning and burying waste, to pulling out more recyclables and composting food waste and organic materials. It also wants to capture more methane gas from landfills, for power generation and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It does that now at five landfills, including a now-closed facility in Hampden.

“We believe that’s where the industry is going in the next two decades,” he said.

Casella owns MERC and operates the state-owned Juniper Ridge landfill in Orono. The proposal to close MERC and have the state sell Juniper Ridge to Casella raises questions about whether the plan would violate the state’s waste-handling policy.

Maine has capacity to dispose of 17 million cubic yards of municipal trash, residues from waste-to-energy plants and construction debris.

The state’s 23-year old policy, enacted by the Legislature, mandates ways to manage the waste. It sets a priority order: reduce, reuse, recycle, compost, waste-to-energy, and landfill.

“Landfilling is the least desirable option under Maine’s solid waste management hierarchy,” says the state’s most recent Solid Waste Generation & Disposal Capacity Report, which was presented to lawmakers in January. “As policy, all other solid waste management options should be considered and exercised to the greatest extent possible, prior to landfilling wastes …”

The order reflects the fact that landfills are costly to build and controversial to locate.

The 25-year-old MERC plant in Biddeford was built to replace old, polluting landfills. It’s one of Maine’s four waste-to-energy plants; the others are in Portland, Auburn and Orrington. Together, they burned 35 percent of the state’s solid waste, 856,941 tons, in 2010, according to the latest state report.

The plants have a combined power output of 62 megawatts – 62 million watts. Maine has less trash in the winter, so to get enough “fuel” year-round to meet the terms of their energy contracts, the plants took 294,594 tons from out of state in 2010. MERC, which burned 284,718 tons, took 185,960 tons from out of state – 65 percent of what it burned.

That doesn’t mean the 185,960 tons of solid waste, mostly from Massachusetts and New Hampshire, would wind up in Old Town, Fusco said.

The quantity would depend on the contract price for disposal and whether closer, less expensive options are available, since Old Town is 136 miles north of Biddeford.

Also in play is whether Maine’s three other waste-to-energy plants could burn some of the trash that now goes to MERC.

“Those discussions have been going on,” said Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, Senate chair of the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee.

Saviello made the motion Monday to postpone his committee’s consideration of the bill calling for the state to sell Juniper Hill to Casella. “There are too many moving parts,” he said.

That view also was expressed by the office of Gov. Paul LePage, which said it didn’t have enough time to study the proposal and understand its impact to the state’s waste-handling system. LePage supports the concept of allowing the state to negotiate the sale of Juniper Ridge, said Adrienne Bennett, his spokeswoman, but he wants to make sure Maine gets the best financial deal possible.

Waste-to-energy plants preserve landfill space. Combustion reduces waste volume, on average, by 90 percent and weight by two-thirds. But they have fallen out of favor in the United States, plagued by problems including air emissions and noise.

MERC is the only waste-to-energy plant owned by Casella, which has 14 landfills from Maine to Pennsylvania that handle 3 million tons of waste a year.

Landfill space is at a premium in Maine. The state has capacity to last until 2020, planners estimate.

Some progress has been made in increasing capacity. LePage signed a bill this month to allow the state’s only commercial landfill to expand.

The Crossroads landfill in Norridgewock, owned by Waste Management Inc., is licensed to handle 3.9 million cubic yards a year. The new law will allow it to grow by 175 acres, pending permits. By law, the landfill can’t accept more than 35 percent of its waste from out of state, a limit that was proposed in the MERC deal.

Crossroads is Maine’s only remaining privately owned landfill. In 1989, the Legislature banned new commercial disposal facilities. It gave the state responsibility for providing future capacity.

In 2003, the Legislature directed the state to acquire the Juniper Ridge landfill, which accepts residues from waste-to-energy facilities, construction debris and other wastes generated within the state. It also takes waste that once went to the Pine Tree landfill in Hampden, which was owned by Casella and closed when it reached capacity in 2009.

Juniper Ridge is the state’s largest landfill, with a capacity of 6.56 million cubic yards. It is operated under a 30-year contract by Casella, which paid the state $26.4 million.

Early this year, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection endorsed plans to expand Juniper Ridge’s capacity by 9.35 million cubic yards. That’s less than half of what Casella said is needed through 2034, but adequate for another 10 years or so. The expansion faces opposition from residents and environmental activists.

Ten communities have municipal-waste landfills; 20 operate landfills that take construction debris.

One factor that could extend the life of landfills is stepped-up efforts to increase recycling, such as expanding programs that don’t require sorting.

The Legislature set a goal in 1989 of recycling half of the state’s municipal trash. That hasn’t happened. The recycling rate peaked at under 42 percent in 1997, and has hovered around 38 percent in recent years.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: tturkel@pressherald.com