The Department of Environmental Protection has issued the final permits for a first-of-its-kind waste management plant in Hampden that would convert trash from more than 100 central Maine communities into biofuels.

But despite its winning of the permits, controversy continues to swell around the project. The state’s largest environmental advocacy group says it’s “dumbfounded” by the permit approval while the organization currently handling the communities’ waste, the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co., has been drawn into a fight over its opposition to the project.

The department issued the permits Friday to the Municipal Review Committee, or MRC, a group that represents the solid waste interests of 187 central Maine communities, and Fiberight, the company that aims to build the plant.

“It’s a tremendous achievement and the MRC is thrilled,” Jessamine Pottle, an MRC spokeswoman, said Monday. “This milestone will help ensure that 105 communities will have access to an affordable and environmentally sustainable option post-2018.”

For now, the permits ensure a plan is in place for the thousands of tons of waste and millions of dollars in tipping fees that are invested in Fiberight through the MRC member communities.

All of the opposition comments on the permits submitted to the DEP requested a public hearing on the issue. But according to DEP spokesman David Madore, the request for a hearing was not made in time for the DEP to consider it – coming nearly a full year after the deadline. The rules on hearings state that a request must be received in writing “no later than 20 days after the application is accepted as complete for processing,” and Fiberight’s applications were accepted as complete for processing on July 15, 2015.

‘DUMBFOUNDED’ BY THE DECISION

When public hearing requests were received at the time of the application’s acceptance – this past Friday – the DEP found that there no “credible, conflicting technical information” that merited a hearing, Madore said in an email Monday.

“MRC and Fiberight have met the standards set forth in statute and rule,” he said.

The final permits are conditional and the MRC and Fiberight still must submit funding information within 30 days of the project’s approval. Some area legislators have noted a lack of specific information about the project’s financing as a key area of concern.

The DEP’s issuance of the final permits comes after a contentious year of debate about the Fiberight project. The MRC contends that this is the best option for its communities, both financially and environmentally; but opponents say that the untested project may not be technically or fiscally feasible, and that the project violates a state statute.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine, which had submitted an opposition comment on the draft permits, said in a statement it was “dumbfounded” at the DEP’s approval of the permits.

The council previously had contended that the project proposal does not align with the waste management hierarchy, that it does not provide adequate information on Fiberight’s technical ability to run the plant and that Fiberight CEO Craig Stuart-Paul had not disclosed adequately previous violations of the EPA’s Clean Water Act from an ethanol spill in its Iowa plant. Fiberight disclosed this information to the DEP a few days before the draft license was released, according to the Natural Resources Council.

“It saddens me that it’s being touted as the best environmental option,” Sarah Lakeman, Sustainable Maine project director, said Monday. Building a new plant that relies on organic waste goes against a state statute that says reduction, reuse and recycling of waste should be priorities, she said.

FINANCIAL BACKING NEXT

Lakeman said that the three other major waste processing plants in the state have enough capacity to handle waste and that relying on organic materials, which people waste too much of already, is not a solution to the problem.

“For them, success means stymieing the growth of composting,” she said. “Success for them isn’t really success for the state.”

Lakeman also questions the technical and financial feasibility of the plant, which officials at first said needed 150,000 tons of trash to operate. Fiberight is now going ahead with the project with towns committing less than 100,000 tons of trash per year.

Fiberight initially had said it needed a commitment of 150,000 tons of solid waste per year by May 1 to move forward with the project.

About a decade ago, the MRC was faced with a decision on what to do after 2018, when its long-term waste disposal contract with the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. expires. That’s also the year a deal to provide above-market-rate electricity between Emera Maine, a power company, and PERC expires. PERC had been getting three times the regular market rate from Emera Maine.

To ensure the plant’s viability, the tipping fees, or charge on the amount of waste a processing facility receives, will increase to $84 to $89 per ton. MRC members now pay $76 per ton, which drops to $59 per ton after rebates from PERC.

After looking at alternatives from a number of companies, the MRC signed a contract with Maryland-based Fiberight to build a first-of-its-kind waste disposal plant in Hampden.

Fiberight’s next step is to get financial backing from one of four other interested investors. Included in the final permits issued by the DEP is the condition that the MRC and Fiberight submit the finalized financial documents to fund the project within 30 days of receipt.

Madeline St. Amour can be contacted at 861-9239 or at:

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