BIDDEFORD – Maine Energy Recovery Co.’s trash-to-energy plant, which has been controversial since before it opened 25 years ago, appears to be headed for the waste heap.

The incinerator that has dominated Biddeford’s downtown and its politics for decades will be bought by the city for $6.65 million by Nov. 15, city officials said Thursday. It will stop operating within six months of the purchase, and will be demolished six months after that.

Under the deal, all that will remain standing is the smokestack, which holds up cellphone towers that generate nearly $150,000 a year in fees. That money will help cover the purchase price.

“The removal of Maine Energy is a game changer,” said Mayor Alan Casavant, who said he began negotiating with Casella Waste Systems, the owner of the MERC plant, almost as soon as he took office in January. “It feels pretty good in a lot of ways.”

The Biddeford City Council will hold a public hearing on the purchase plan Tuesday, with a final vote scheduled for July 31.

Since it opened in 1987, residents have complained about the plant — its smell, the rumble and odor of trucks carrying trash on downtown streets, and the smoke from the stack.

State officials have tried to mediate a solution, and at one point officials in neighboring Saco considered putting money into an effort to buy and close the plant.

In the end, business was the crucial factor. City Manager John Bubier said Casella officials indicated early in the latest round of talks that the company was no longer interested in operating an incinerator and was eager to strike a deal.

Joe Fusco, the company’s vice president, said Casella is focusing more on recycling than trash disposal.

“The industry is shifting and we, as a company, are shifting,” said Fusco, who noted that the Biddeford plant is the company’s only incinerator. “It’s a method of dealing with waste that’s really passing out of favor.”

Fusco said recycling is more lucrative because “recoverables” can be sold, more than covering the cost of separating paper, plastic and metals.

Casavant said the deal was built on previous, unsuccessful efforts to come up with a plan for the plant. The most recent one called for diverting trash from MERC, trucking it out of town and turning it into fuel pellets. Those pellets would have been trucked into Biddeford and burned in the incinerator.

The deal fell apart about two years ago, after then-Mayor Joanne Twomey withdrew her support, saying the plan didn’t establish an end date for MERC’s operations downtown.

Twomey, a longtime opponent of the plant, said Thursday that the latest deal isn’t to her liking — she declined to say why — but closing the plant is more important to her than getting the perfect deal.

“I’m not going to nitpick. I’m not going to go to the public hearing,” she said. “I see lots I don’t like … (but) they’re going to be out of town and that’s a bigger issue than nitpicking.”

Her view was shared widely on the streets of the city Thursday.

“I think it’s a great thing,” said Ron Giles of Biddeford. “It shouldn’t have been put there in the first place.”

As for the cost of buying the plant, Giles said, “if that’s what it takes to get rid of it, then pay it and be done.”

Walter Buczacz, who owns Youland’s Jewelers, said he would walk past the plant to his shop on Main Street when the plant was being built, and he remembers promises that there would be no smell.

It soon became clear that wouldn’t be the case, he said, although the odor issue has gotten better since upgrades were made to the plant in the late 1990s.

“It’s been a detriment to downtown,” he said, and the plan to close it “sounds like a good deal.”

Casavant said past efforts by Twomey and others to get rid of the incinerator laid the groundwork for his talks with Casella, in which the company quickly moved off the $10 million price it had sought in previous discussions.

“When I came on board, a lot of the pieces were there,” he said. “Even though it was very complicated, it moved very smoothly.”

The $6.65 million, to be paid over 20 years, shouldn’t affect the city’s property-tax rate, Bubier said, with money coming from the cellphone towers and taxes generated in a special district established at Biddeford Crossing — the huge retail complex near the Maine Turnpike — and the downtown mill area.

Some of that money now goes into projects to redevelop mill buildings, he said, but there is enough to steer some toward buying the incinerator.

The annual payments will start at $150,000 a year and climb to $350,000 a year.

Biddeford will also pay higher fees to dispose of its trash, first at MERC and then at a Casella Waste Systems recycling and trash processing plant to be built in Westbrook.

Bubier said Biddeford’s fee is scheduled to increase from the current $47 a ton to $55, under an agreement that takes effect Sunday.

That higher rate should be offset by a curbside recycling program that will begin in the summer of 2013 and reduce the amount of trash the city generates.

Bubier said Biddeford residents now recycle only about 7 percent of the waste that’s generated in the city. That rate is expected to improve to about 30 percent with curbside recycling, he said.

Casavant said the details of the purchase are to his liking, but the most important thing is that it will remove “a stigma” from Biddeford.

He said interest in redeveloping the city’s former mills wanes when developers see the plant — and get a whiff of a truck rolling in to make another delivery.

“This is our chance to reject the stigma and really rewrite the whole story line,” Casavant said. “Controlling this space is really critical for Biddeford’s future. This is the time when we finally put to bed the idea of Biddeford as a mill town.”

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]