April 10, 2012

Plan to close controversial Biddeford incinerator hits stumbling block

A bill in the Maine Legislature that would have paved the way for a deal died Monday, and it won't be revived this year.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A bill in the Legislature that would have enabled Casella Waste Systems to sell its Maine Energy Recovery Co. trash plant to the city of Biddeford is dead for this year.

click image to enlarge

The MERC incinerator in Biddeford.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Related Documents

2010 Maine Solid Waste Generation & Disposal Report

The bill would have authorized the state to sell the Juniper Ridge landfill in Old Town to Casella. The company could have used the landfill to bury the waste that is now burned in Biddeford, and the city could have closed down the unpopular plant in its downtown.

But the Maine Senate, without debate, voted Monday not to send the bill to committee for consideration.

Biddeford officials and Casella vowed to seek other ways to move ahead with the plan.

"We'll keep talking to Biddeford," said Joe Fusco, a spokesman for Vermont-based Casella Waste Systems.

Alan Casavant, who is Biddeford's mayor and represents the city in the state House of Representatives, said he recognized that, coming so late in this year's legislative session, the proposal faced challenges. But he said he plans to meet with Casella this week.

He said "a big stumbling block" to closing the plant is the fact that Biddeford and 13 other communities have disposal contracts with MERC, and will need someplace to send their trash.

The proposal to close MERC, made public last week by the city and Casella, highlights the role of waste-to-energy plants in conserving Maine's limited landfill space, as well as changing trends in trash disposal.

Fusco said Casella is moving away from burning and burying waste, to pulling out more recyclables and composting food waste and organic materials. It also wants to capture more methane gas from landfills, for power generation and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It does that now at five landfills, including a now-closed facility in Hampden.

"We believe that's where the industry is going in the next two decades," he said.

Casella owns MERC and operates the state-owned Juniper Ridge landfill in Orono. The proposal to close MERC and have the state sell Juniper Ridge to Casella raises questions about whether the plan would violate the state's waste-handling policy.

Maine has capacity to dispose of 17 million cubic yards of municipal trash, residues from waste-to-energy plants and construction debris.

The state's 23-year old policy, enacted by the Legislature, mandates ways to manage the waste. It sets a priority order: reduce, reuse, recycle, compost, waste-to-energy, and landfill.

"Landfilling is the least desirable option under Maine's solid waste management hierarchy," says the state's most recent Solid Waste Generation & Disposal Capacity Report, which was presented to lawmakers in January. "As policy, all other solid waste management options should be considered and exercised to the greatest extent possible, prior to landfilling wastes ..."

The order reflects the fact that landfills are costly to build and controversial to locate.

The 25-year-old MERC plant in Biddeford was built to replace old, polluting landfills. It's one of Maine's four waste-to-energy plants; the others are in Portland, Auburn and Orrington. Together, they burned 35 percent of the state's solid waste, 856,941 tons, in 2010, according to the latest state report.

The plants have a combined power output of 62 megawatts – 62 million watts. Maine has less trash in the winter, so to get enough "fuel" year-round to meet the terms of their energy contracts, the plants took 294,594 tons from out of state in 2010. MERC, which burned 284,718 tons, took 185,960 tons from out of state – 65 percent of what it burned.

That doesn't mean the 185,960 tons of solid waste, mostly from Massachusetts and New Hampshire, would wind up in Old Town, Fusco said.

The quantity would depend on the contract price for disposal and whether closer, less expensive options are available, since Old Town is 136 miles north of Biddeford.

(Continued on page 2)

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