March 4, 2010

Biddeford poised to end trash talk



Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD — The city's days as what its mayor once derisively called ''Garbagetown'' may be numbered.

A plan announced Wednesday would move the Maine Energy Recovery Co.'s trash processing operation from its incinerator building in downtown Biddeford to a site outside the city.

The proposal also would provide cut-rate electricity to residents and warm nearby mill buildings with energy from the incinerator, which could be transformed from a blight on the city to the centerpiece of a new green energy zone.

Wednesday's announcement by city and state officials and a representative of the incinerator's corporate owner capped more than five months of talks that went from icy in May to warm in September as the proposal was formed.

''It took us from May until probably July to start talking to each other,'' said James Bohlig, president of Casella Renewables, a division of Casella Waste, which owns the plant. ''We were pretty well paralyzed.''

Biddeford Mayor Joanne Twomey, whose political career was launched by her opposition to the incinerator, said she struggled to put her hostility aside when she sat down to talk with Bohlig.

''I looked at Jim and said, 'How do I get you out of here?' '' she recalled.

City officials wanted the incinerator shut down; Casella Waste hoped to sell it to another operator, and considered skipping the negotiations.

Both sides said Wednesday that the talks helped them see another potential outcome.

For Biddeford, moving the trash processing operation would eliminate odors downtown and cut the number of trucks rumbling through the city by more than half -- two problems that officials said hampered their efforts to redevelop vacant mills.

The plan also would reduce electricity costs for thousands of residents by as much as $400 a year, and take waste heat from the incinerator to warm 2 million square feet of mill space, making the buildings more attractive to potential tenants.

Casella, meanwhile, could remake its image, from low-tech landfill operator to high-tech green energy pioneer.

It may also gain access to economic stimulus money earmarked for energy innovation projects, to help pay for a state-of-the-art trash processing plant.

And Casella, which would like to get out of the trash-to-energy incinerator business, might eventually transfer ownership to the city.

None of the officials would say where the processing plant might be built, although Bohlig said talks with other communities are ''advanced.''

John Richardson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, said the plant could actually benefit its host community, with thousands of dollars in property taxes, a couple dozen jobs and a role at the forefront of green energy.

Bohlig said the new plant would let Casella double the amount of material it recycles, which is an important source of revenue for the company.

He said the plant would have technology to detect and precisely identify recyclable material -- a certain type of plastic bottle, for instance -- track each piece as it moves on a conveyor belt, then use a puff of air to send it to the proper container.

Recycling at the Biddeford plant is limited, he said. Most of the material is shredded for incineration and only minor amounts of metal and plastic are extracted for recycling.

The processing plant would compact burnable trash into a pellet form. The pellets, Bohlig said, would be virtually odorless and produce more energy than the mix of waste that's now burned in the incinerator.

The cut-rate electricity is possible because of legislative changes that allow generators to sell to distributors, rather than putting the power on the grid to be sold on the spot market.

Biddeford is negotiating with neighboring Saco to give residents there access to the low-cost electricity as well.

A final piece of the plan calls for Citizen Energy, run by Joseph P. Kennedy II, to do energy audits for hundred of homes and help with weatherization to reduce energy costs and consumption.

The initiatives put Biddeford ''at the head of the class here in Maine,'' said Richardson, who expects Gov. John Baldacci to support the plan because he backed creation of the task force that developed it.

The electricity co-op is expected to be set up by January, and construction of the processing plant could get started in as little as 18 months if economic stimulus money is available as expected, Richardson said.

Although hurdles remain, Twomey said the plan has the potential to turn around Biddeford's image as a down-on-its-luck mill town.

''We are going to be cleaner, greener and more efficient,'' she said.

''I think it will be a model for the future,'' Bohlig said. ''Not only for Maine -- there's nothing else like this.''

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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