March 15, 2010

Developer seeking to buy MERC, then shut it

NOEL K

— By . GALLAGHER

Staff Writer

SACO — The developer of the $100 million Saco Island project is talking with the owner of the trash incinerator in downtown Biddeford about buying the plant and shutting it down, officials with both companies said Wednesday.

''We are in discussions, and they are good discussions,'' said Bob Martin, chief operating officer of Winthrop-based Mattson Development LLC, the company that is undertaking the Island Point redevelopment.

There is no deal on the table, according to officials for both Mattson and Casella Waste Management, the parent company of the Maine Energy Recovery Co.

''(The discussions) have not yielded anything of substance,'' said Casella Vice President Joseph Fusco. ''We have been discussing the future of Maine Energy and what is the role of the company. Ownership is part of that.''

Also Wednesday, Biddeford Mayor Joanne Twomey met with Casella officials in Vermont to discuss steps toward shutting down MERC. About a year ago, Biddeford and Casella signed a new five-year contract that includes a clause saying the city and Casella would work cooperatively to shut down the incinerator.

Fusco said the company will have no comment on Twomey's visit.

Mattson approached Casella several months ago, Martin said, with the idea that Mattson, as a private company, could break through the political gridlock that had built up over the years between public officials and MERC representatives. One option, Martin said, is forming a nonprofit entity that could purchase the plant.

Martin said city officials in Saco and Biddeford were not told of the discussions until Wednesday, when word of the talks leaked out, prompting a news conference.

Saco Mayor Ron Michaud said he was happy to hear that talks are under way.

''It needs to go,'' Michaud said of the trash plant. ''I'm open to looking at all options and working with anyone to get that done.''

MERC has been unpopular because of its size, location and smell since it opened 20 years ago. There have been numerous efforts to mitigate the smell or shut down the plant over the years.

In 2005, voters in Saco and Biddeford considered a proposal to buy the plant for $20 million and shut it down within 10 years. The proposal failed in both cities, with many residents saying it would be too expensive.

Last year, Biddeford's mayor at the time, Wallace Nutting, and his administration worked unsuccessfully with Casella to come up with a statewide plan for reorganizing trash disposal in Maine that would have allowed MERC to close.

Residents and business owners have long argued that MERC is holding back redevelopment in the area.

Tenants are wary of moving into the renovated mill buildings in the area, owners say, because of the smell and closeness of the plant.

''That wafting garbage smell is just not acceptable,'' said Doug Sanford, owner of a three-building complex in the Biddeford mill district that houses 40 commercial tenants.

His tenants and potential tenants have said they are concerned about the smell, he said.

Sanford said he regularly reports the odor to a city-sponsored hotline that goes to the Biddeford police station.

''In the past, the mills smelled and we just accepted that, but nowadays we don't have to take that,'' he said.

Also Wednesday, former Saco Mayor Mark Johnston held a press conference to announce that he has sued MERC, claiming that its smell qualifies as a nuisance.

Johnston said he decided to sue MERC as a citizen after walking down a street one day last week and smelling the odor from the plant.

Customers at his wine and deli shop in downtown Saco often complain about the smell, he said.

''The city has spent millions on their downtown, and it is time for (MERC) to either close up shop or rectify the problem,'' said Johnston, who was mayor for 14 years. ''We might as well be handing out clothespins.''

His lawsuit asks for an injunction prohibiting MERC from allowing odors to travel beyond its property.

Fusco said Wednesday that the lawsuit is without merit and that MERC operates in compliance with local and state regulations.

In July, MERC was fined $38,700 by the Maine Board of Environmental Protection for failing a stack test, one of 24 violations found by the state.

Other violations included exceeding carbon monoxide emission standards 20 times and nitrogen standards three times over six years.

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

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