February 26, 2010

Mayor pulls support for Biddeford trash plan

— BETH QUIMBY

20100113_BSChamber
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20100113_BSChamber

Gordon Chibroski

20100113_BSChamber
click image to enlarge

20100113_BSChamber

Gordon Chibroski

Staff Writer

Biddeford Mayor Joanne Twomey has withdrawn her support for a deal to transform the Maine Energy Recovery Co. incinerator and has quit the task force formed by Gov. John Baldacci to put the plan together.

Twomey, a longtime critic of the plant owned by Casella Waste Systems Inc., said she stepped away from the process because it became clear to her during the past year of negotiations that Biddeford has nothing to gain.

''What finally did it for me was the race to get (federal) stimulus money to pay for this whole operation -- millions of dollars going for private profit,'' said Twomey.

A company official said Casella could still move ahead with most of the plan, with or without Biddeford's support.

But another task force member said the deal is dead without it.

The deal is aimed at addressing the city's longstanding complaints about odors and truck traffic from the plant in the heart of downtown Biddeford.

With help from the Legislature and after months of negotiations, the city, the state and Casella reached an agreement in the fall to move the trash collection and processing operation to a plant in another community.

The plan calls for a new facility to take in tons of trash daily, house a state-of-the-art recycling center and turn the trash into fuel pellets to power the trash-to-energy incinerator in Biddeford.

The energy would be sold to the area's residents and businesses at discounted rates, and the waste heat from the generation process would heat nearby mill space.

Casella estimated the cost of the new plant at $15 million and said last month that it was preparing federal grant applications to help pay for it.

Twomey said Casella planned to build the plant on land it owns in Westbrook, where it now processes demolition materials.

She said it has become apparent to her that Biddeford wouldn't see any of the promised benefits.

She said she could not get assurances from Casella that it would emit fewer dioxins at the MERC plant or reduce truck traffic through the city.

''This is a Neanderthal way of taking care of trash, under the guise of green,'' Twomey said.

She said she was especially frustrated that no one could tell her how many, if any, Biddeford residents would get lower electricity rates because of the venture.

Twomey said it was the promise of lower rates that led her to support the deal initially.

The task force includes Casella's representatives, state and local officials and John Richardson, the former commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, who stepped down last year to run for governor.

Members had been meeting for hours weekly and said they were stunned by the mayor's decision, which she announced at a meeting Monday.

''Some of the questions are very complex and are taking longer to answer than expected. It doesn't mean we can't reach agreement on them at some point,'' said Ken Robbins, manager of the Biddeford plant.

But Peter Morelli, Saco's economic development director and a member of the task force, said, ''I don't see this having a prayer of going anywhere without the full support of Biddeford's mayor.''

Twomey said she is deciding what to do next to resolve the city's issues with Casella, which has two more years on its contract to handle Biddeford's trash.

''We have other avenues to pursue. We still have our police powers and we do have pending odor violations,'' Twomey said.

Richardson, who stepped down as chairman of the task force but remains a member, said he is optimistic that the deal can be put back on track because there are real benefits for Biddeford.

Another meeting of the task force is scheduled for Monday, when Richardson said he will try to get the process moving ahead again.

''Sometimes in negotiations, people decide they need some time for reflection and then move forward,'' he said.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

bquimby@pressherald.com

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