March 15, 2010

Lyman composting operation to shut down under pressure

JOHN RICHARDSON

— By

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Staff photo by Gregory Rec... The composting operation at Winterwood Farms in Lyman has been connected to a white fungus appearing in nearby Lords Brook. Since the fungus first appeared in November of 2005, Bob St. Onge has been dealing with the Maine Department of Enviornmental Protection and the Department of Agriculture to alleviate the problem and is currently in mediation with the DEP over the issue.

Staff Writer

One of Maine's largest recyclers of lobster shells, cow manure and other organic waste has notified customers and state officials that it will shut down next week because of a long-running dispute over pollution in a nearby stream.

Winterwood Farm's owner circulated a letter last month saying the company in Lyman will stop accepting organic waste Sept. 11. Customers, including seafood processors, grocery stores and dairy farmers, are now looking for disposal alternatives, while some state officials are concerned about where all the waste will go.

Shucks Maine Lobster, for example, sends as many as two truckloads of lobster shells each week to Winterwood.

''They turn them into compost and sell them as lobster compost, which is good for them and good for us,'' said Charlie Langston, Shucks' chief executive officer.

''We've identified a couple of options. The worst would be to just send it to a landfill.''

Andrew Fisk, director of the Bureau of Land and Water Quality for the Department of Environmental Protection, said the state supports composting and is working with other companies that are capable of handling the waste that now goes to Winterwood.

''We don't know what the ultimate consequences will be for these customers. There may well be cost increases for these customers, and that would be very unfortunate,'' Fisk said. ''But we can't allow a facility, over the course of years, to violate state law and keep them open in order to meet state solid waste management goals.''

Robert St. Onge, the owner of Winterwood Farm, declined Wednesday to discuss the dispute or plans for the company.

''Thirty-five years of my life and the whole investment my wife and I have worked for is at stake here,'' he said.

St. Onge's attorney could not be reached.

The potential shutdown is the latest turn in a dispute that started nearly three years ago and has involved the DEP, the Department of Agriculture, the governor's office, the Legislature and the courts.

Heavy rain in October 2005 flushed storm water contaminated with nitrogen and other organic nutrients from the composting operation into Lords Brook, a nearby tributary of the Kennebunk River. Neighbors downstream complained of odors and a sticky white substance covering the stream bed, a fungus later linked by the DEP to the organic contamination.

Tests showed elevated nutrients and bacteria and depleted oxygen levels in the streams, and the DEP said the company was illegally discharging waste into the stream because it did not have enough capacity to contain polluted storm water.

Neighbors and the DEP said the contamination and fungus have persisted despite agreements and court orders calling for Winterwood Farm to expand its detention capacity.

Fisk said tests taken early last month showed extremely high levels of contamination, although in recent weeks there have been no discharges detected and the stream appears to be recovering. The company has made progress, he said, but has yet to permanently fix the problem.

In May, a judge in Biddeford District Court handed down a contempt order demanding an immediate end to the discharges. Maine's attorney general filed a motion on Aug. 8 calling for a shutdown of the operation for violating the contempt order. Winterwood's attorney filed a counter-argument on Friday denying the latest accusation.

St. Onge has argued that the DEP has been unreasonable and has prevented him from fixing the problem by rushing to enforcement action. Advocates for the company say he has not been able to get federal financing to upgrade the facility because the DEP insisted on filing violation notices and court action.

Winterwood also is in the midst of a financial reorganization in bankruptcy court. While the company's lawyer has said the bankruptcy was due to other factors, St. Onge wrote in his letter that the costs related to the DEP violation forced the company into bankruptcy.

St. Onge's letter saying that the company will stop taking waste on Sept. 11 was sent to customers, as well as the governor, Maine's congressional delegation and members of the state Legislature.

State Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds, said the DEP has forced Winterwood and its customers into a corner.

''These compost operations, Winterwood included, are taking products that otherwise would have to be pumped into the sewer systems or put in landfills. To me, it's far better to have it put into plastic bags as soil that somebody pays for,'' he said.

Nutting said Winterwood has paid for engineering studies and is ready to make upgrades. He also said he's still hopeful that the company will not close.

Karen Tilberg, an aide to Gov. John Baldacci, said the administration also has tried to resolve the issue and continues to work on it.

''Certainly our agencies are aware of the businesses that depend on composting and are actively seeking solutions,'' she said. ''But, given the history here, solutions are going to take some time to secure and implement.''

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

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