WESTBROOK – About nine months ago, Casella Waste Systems rolled out an ambitious plan to build a $15 million, state-of-the-art waste processing facility on land it owns on County Road in Westbrook.

However, after that announcement, city officials say they’ve heard no more from Casella about its proposal to build a facility to process and turn into combustible, odorless pellets the 280,000 tons of trash that now goes each year to the company’s Maine Energy Recovery Co. incinerator in Biddeford.

Now, the Vermont-based company has confirmed that its plans for the new facility are on hold.

“Given the economy and other factors, we have no immediate plans to move forward with this facility at this time,” Brian Oliver, Northeastern regional vice president for Casella, said via e-mail this week.

He added, “Unfortunately, I really don’t have a specific time horizon for build out of that site.”

But, Oliver stressed that the company still plans to pursue its proposal.

“We have not abandoned the plan. We are just in a bit of a holding pattern,” he said.

Casella did not set a specific date for building the Westbrook facility when it announced its plans late last December. James Bohlig, Casella’s chief development officer, said such a processing facility would take two to four years to get up and running.

Casella first floated the idea of a facility to process garbage and turn into pellets last October in Biddeford, but at that time didn’t identify Westbrook as the proposed site.

Instead, Casella then focused on how processing the trash outside of Biddeford would address concerns by residents there about odors and traffic at the waste-to-energy plant.

Casella and officials from Biddeford and the state were all part of a task force that city formed last year to explore a way for the public to purchase the controversial incinerator and shut it down.

Instead, the task force proposed initiatives designed to mitigate the incinerator’s negative effects, make trash processing more environmentally friendly, and provide benefits such as discounted power to residents and businesses in the host communities of Biddeford, Saco and Westbrook.

At that time, Biddeford Mayor Joanne Twomey, an ardent critic of the incinerator and a member of the task, supported the initiatives. But she withdrew her support early this year, and criticized Casella’s plan to locate the processing facility in Westbrook. She said that would increase the incinerator’s carbon footprint because trucks would be traveling from Westbrook to the Biddeford with the pellets that would be burned in the incinerator.

However, Casella said at the time that it still planned to move forward with its plans for the Westbrook facility.

That was back in February and Westbrook officials said they’ve heard nothing since.

“We don’t know what the status is,” said City Administrator Jerre Bryant. “There has been no further contact with them since that time.”

Site improvement work that Casella had begun at its County Road property has ceased, according to Bryant and Eric Dudley, city engineer. Dudley said the company did such work as building some stormwater detention ponds and a gravel access road.

Initially, Casella had plans to build a construction demolition debris processing facility on the land and also a recycling drop-off station there. It has Planning Board approval for that plan.

However, last December, Casella announced it wanted instead to build a facility to process trash into pellets for the Biddeford incinerator.

Casella also promised a reduction in energy bills for Westbrook residents and businesses and a program to weatherize homes.

Whenever Casella decides to move forward on the proposal, it would need state and local approvals for the project.

Bryant said the company most likely would need to go back to the Planning Board to amend its site plan approval to accommodate its new plan.

Also, he said, the company would have to get a permit from the state to process municipal solid waste.

Paula Clark, director of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Solid Waste Management, said this week that Casella has not applied for such a permit with the state.

Also, Bryant said, Casella would have to ask the City Council to approve an amendment to its current host city agreement with Westbrook.

Under the current agreement, Casella paid to implement a curbside trash and recycling program for city residents that got under way last fall and has now significantly boosted the city’s recycling rate.

Bryant also believes that Casella would have to convince city residents that the trash processing facility would benefit them.

“They have some regulatory hoops to jump through, both locally and at the state level,” he said. “And, in my opinion, a pretty significant public information plan ahead of them.”

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