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

(Continued from page 1)

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The MERC incinerator in Biddeford.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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2010 Maine Solid Waste Generation & Disposal Report

Also in play is whether Maine's three other waste-to-energy plants could burn some of the trash that now goes to MERC.

"Those discussions have been going on," said Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, Senate chair of the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee.

Saviello made the motion Monday to postpone his committee's consideration of the bill calling for the state to sell Juniper Hill to Casella. "There are too many moving parts," he said.

That view also was expressed by the office of Gov. Paul LePage, which said it didn't have enough time to study the proposal and understand its impact to the state's waste-handling system. LePage supports the concept of allowing the state to negotiate the sale of Juniper Ridge, said Adrienne Bennett, his spokeswoman, but he wants to make sure Maine gets the best financial deal possible.

Waste-to-energy plants preserve landfill space. Combustion reduces waste volume, on average, by 90 percent and weight by two-thirds. But they have fallen out of favor in the United States, plagued by problems including air emissions and noise.

MERC is the only waste-to-energy plant owned by Casella, which has 14 landfills from Maine to Pennsylvania that handle 3 million tons of waste a year.

Landfill space is at a premium in Maine. The state has capacity to last until 2020, planners estimate.

Some progress has been made in increasing capacity. LePage signed a bill this month to allow the state's only commercial landfill to expand.

The Crossroads landfill in Norridgewock, owned by Waste Management Inc., is licensed to handle 3.9 million cubic yards a year. The new law will allow it to grow by 175 acres, pending permits. By law, the landfill can't accept more than 35 percent of its waste from out of state, a limit that was proposed in the MERC deal.

Crossroads is Maine's only remaining privately owned landfill. In 1989, the Legislature banned new commercial disposal facilities. It gave the state responsibility for providing future capacity.

In 2003, the Legislature directed the state to acquire the Juniper Ridge landfill, which accepts residues from waste-to-energy facilities, construction debris and other wastes generated within the state. It also takes waste that once went to the Pine Tree landfill in Hampden, which was owned by Casella and closed when it reached capacity in 2009.

Juniper Ridge is the state's largest landfill, with a capacity of 6.56 million cubic yards. It is operated under a 30-year contract by Casella, which paid the state $26.4 million.

Early this year, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection endorsed plans to expand Juniper Ridge's capacity by 9.35 million cubic yards. That's less than half of what Casella said is needed through 2034, but adequate for another 10 years or so. The expansion faces opposition from residents and environmental activists.

Ten communities have municipal-waste landfills; 20 operate landfills that take construction debris.

One factor that could extend the life of landfills is stepped-up efforts to increase recycling, such as expanding programs that don't require sorting.

The Legislature set a goal in 1989 of recycling half of the state's municipal trash. That hasn't happened. The recycling rate peaked at under 42 percent in 1997, and has hovered around 38 percent in recent years.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: tturkel@pressherald.com

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