Biddeford officials appear close to a deal to buy Maine Energy Recovery Co. from Casella Waste Systems Inc. in the city’s latest attempt to close the downtown trash incinerator.

The City Council will meet privately Monday night to discuss terms of a deal that would let the city buy and close the incinerator that for years has generated complaints about foul odors and stymied economic development.

Negotiations began early this spring, and Casella announced in April that it would sell the plant to the city for $7.5 million.

City officials say there have been changes to the agreement, but they cannot yet disclose them. They say the negotiations have been positive and city officials are more motivated than ever to reach an agreement to remove MERC and make way for more investment in the adjacent mill district.

“People within City Hall and owners of the mills have always indicated there are opportunities for development that disappear as soon as the discussion of Maine Energy is on the table,” said Mayor Alan Casavant. “The removal of Maine Energy is going to present some economic benefits to the city of Biddeford. We’ve talked to a number of developers that indicated that would be a game-changer.”

Casella announced in April that it planned to sell MERC to Biddeford and dismantle the incinerator.

The decision to build the trash-to-energy plant in downtown Biddeford was made in 1982. The $105 million project became unpopular with residents and businesses almost immediately.

In 1988, the state cited the plant for spewing toxic ash from its stack, prompting a $2 million retrofit. There were also complaints about noise and odor.

In 1990, Biddeford and Saco sued MERC and the incinerator’s designer, General Electric, claiming it had failed to build a safe and efficient plant. The cities won a $5.1 million settlement, and MERC later won an $11.5 million settlement with GE over the flaws.

The lawsuits were followed by a push from residents to shut down the plant, leading to negotiations in 2004 among Biddeford, Saco and Casella. A proposal emerged for the cities to buy and close the plant, but in 2005 voters rejected a plan for each city to borrow $10 million to buy it.

Plans to shut down MERC emerged again in 2009, when Gov. John Baldacci’s office helped establish a task force of local, state and company officials.

A plan emerged to truck trash to a proposed processing plant in Westbrook that could produce fuel pellets to be burned in Biddeford for powering Biddeford’s mill district. Those plans fell apart in 2010 amid infighting by the parties.

In the latest negotiations, the initial agreement was for Biddeford to buy the plant for $7.5 million, funded through inflated disposal fees, revenue from a tax-increment financing district, and cellphone towers on the incinerator property.

The plan called for the trash from 15 communities that is now burned at MERC — about 285,000 tons in 2010 — to go instead to a yet-to-be-built transfer station in Westbrook, where it would be sorted and sent to the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town.

Casella wanted to take ownership of Juniper Ridge so it could accept out-of-state trash, which state-owned landfills cannot do.

That plan hit a stumbling block when the Maine Senate voted in April not to send to committee a bill to transfer ownership of Juniper Ridge. Biddeford and Casella officials vowed to seek other ways to move ahead with the plan.

Joe Fusco, a vice president for Casella, declined to say how Juniper Ridge plays into current discussions with Biddeford because negotiations continue.

“We’re fairly optimistic we’ll reach some sort of agreement,” he said.

Casavant and City Manager John Bubier said the tone of current meetings is positive, unlike past negotiations.

“In years past, I think it was tinged with a lot of animosity. I think we brought it to a different level this year,” Casavant said.

He said he thinks that closing the incinerator would boost economic development, cushioning the blow from the loss of $800,000 in taxes from MERC.

“For Biddeford to move forward, it has to remove the stigma of Maine Energy from public perception. There is no doubt in my mind that that area of Biddeford is prime for redevelopment if we can remove Maine Energy,” Casavant said.

The City Council plans a public hearing on the agreement July 3. Bubier anticipates that the council will take an initial vote on the agreement on July 17 and, if it passes, a final vote on July 31.

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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