November 30, 2012

Biddeford without MERC: 'We will no longer be known as a stink town'

The city finally closes on the controversial waste-to-energy plant.

By Gillian Graham
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD — Sealing a historic deal that many hope will bring new life to a downtown dominated by a trash incinerator for the past 25 years, Biddeford purchased the Maine Energy Recovery Co. property Friday.

click image to enlarge

Biddeford purchased the Maine Energy Recovery Co. property Friday, sealing a historic deal that many hope will bring new life to a downtown dominated by a trash incinerator for the past 25 years

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Delilah Poupore, executive director of Heart of Biddeford, said the purchase of the MERC property has already increased interest in new businesses, restaurants, and arts and cultural events.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

"It's the beginning of an incredible new era for the city," said City Manager John Bubier as he signed the sale documents at City Hall, a block from the incinerator and its towering smokestack.

Residents and business owners have complained since MERC opened in 1987 about the plant's smell, the rumble and odor of trash trucks, and smoke from the stack.

The purchase agreement allows the waste-to-energy incinerator to keep burning trash until the end of this year, then calls for its demolition by Casella Waste Systems, which sold MERC to the city.

Mayor Alan Casavant said the plant has been "a big blue obstacle" to redevelopment of the city's former textile mills into residential, retail and manufacturing spaces.

Despite an increase in occupancy in the past several years, much of the mill space remains empty, he said, with investors hesitant to move to a city once dubbed "Trashtown USA."

The purchase marks a turning point for Biddeford and will help stimulate economic development in its downtown and mill district, the mayor said.

"We're changing the paradigm, we're changing the stereotype and we're moving forward."

The City Council voted in July to buy the MERC property for $6.65 million from Vermont-based Casella Waste Systems, which had decided to close the plant and shift operations to its other waste handling facilities, including one that's under construction in Westbrook.

Casella is seeking permission to bury more trash at the Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town. That issue is pending with the state Department of Environmental Protection and will be decided next year.

Casella gave 60-day layoff notices in November to its 75 employees at MERC and said operations in Biddeford will end by Dec. 31.

The demolition will spare only the smokestack, which holds cellphone towers that generate revenue. The city will use that revenue to help pay for the purchase.

City and company officials delayed the sale until the state formally approved a plan to clean up contamination at the site. It appeared earlier this week that the closing would be delayed until next week, but the cleanup was approved by the DEP late Thursday, clearing the way for Friday's closing.

Environmental tests done on the site revealed dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls. Casella will pay to remove contaminated soils and underground and above-ground storage tanks. The cleanup also will address any asbestos, lead-based paint and materials containing PCBs found during the demolition.

Joanne Twomey, a former Biddeford mayor who fought before and during her administration to close MERC, said Friday that she has concerns about the findings from the environmental tests.

She said she doesn't think the city should have paid more than $6 million for contaminated land.

"I can't be jumping up and down today," she said. "Today is a mixed bag. I'm happy they're going to be gone, but I feel MERC got the best deal."

While the property is being cleaned up, the city will plan the future of the 8.4-acre site on the Saco River, just off Main Street.

Daniel Stevenson, the city's economic and community development director, said the city will commission a feasibility study for the property. His office has already fielded calls from investors and developers who are interested in the site, he said.

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Mark Johnston, the mayor of Saco and owner of Vic and Whit's Sandwich Shop, said, "This is a great day for both Biddeford and Saco residents. We lost two decades of economic development" because of the incinerator.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer


Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)