Deep in the earth, in a 30-acre landfill in South Portland, is a half-million dollars.

Scrap metals that were buried in ecomaine’s ash landfill as long as 20 years ago will be dug up by an Ohio-based company that will pay the trash disposal agency per-ton fees for reclaimed metal that can be resold.

Those fees, and the fact that the metal’s removal will open up landfill space, translates into an economic benefit projected at nearly $500,000. That’s good news for the 43 communities in southern Maine that are served by ecomaine, a nonprofit, municipally owned entity that was known as Regional Waste Systems until 2006.

Ecomaine General Manager Kevin Roche said the landfill mining project is the first of its kind in the nation. It began in early November and could take as long as three years, he said.

Ecomaine announced Thursday that it has hired Reserve Management Group to mine the landfill and sift through more than 1 million tons of ash in search of scrap metal, which has become more valuable in recent years.

Ecomaine estimates that 13 percent of the metals in the landfill can be sold as scrap.

“Out of the ashes, there is rising opportunity to create value from what has long been considered waste while concurrently creating new space in our landfills,” said Patricia Aho, commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

In addition to recycling of materials, ecomaine burns household trash and converts it into electricity, which supplies the power grid. The burned trash goes into the ash landfill.

Though a giant magnet in ecomaine’s plant in Portland removes metals from the waste, metallic objects still make it into the incinerator and end up in the landfill. By recovering metal from the landfill, ecomaine is creating valuable space to bury more ash.

At the ash landfill, excavators dig deep into the earth, creating piles of ash and metal. Roche said some of the more valuable metals being recovered are auto parts, cans, nails, tools and aluminum.

As the sun set Thursday afternoon, he sat behind the wheel of his four-wheel-drive pickup truck, parked on a small mountain, a grass-covered landfill that overlooks the ash landfill.

Roche said most of ecomaine’s 240-acre landfill property is in South Portland, about two miles from its incinerator on Blueberry Road in Portland. The property is between County Road in Westbrook and Running Hill Road in South Portland.

The mound of trash on which Roche’s truck perched was created before 1988, when municipalities buried their trash rather than burning it.

“Someday, someone will mine these (trash) cells for resources,” he said.

What makes the current project so unique, Roche said, is that the majority of communities in the United States still bury trash. There are only 88 waste-to-energy plants in the U.S., compared with 400 in Europe.

“All those communities (that bury trash) are doing is housing the waste for future generations,” Roche said. “It doesn’t go away.”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]