Officials with a nonprofit organization representing the trash-disposal interests of more than 100 Maine communities told members Wednesday they’re trying to find a new owner and financing to keep afloat the Fiberight plant in Hampden, a beleaguered waste-to-energy facility that suspended operations last month.

The Municipal Review Committee, which aims to ensure affordable, long-term and environmentally sound disposal of municipal solid waste, also said it would hold the current operator accountable for unpaid obligations during the temporary closure.

Coastal Maine LLC, which owns and operates the Fiberight facility, closed May 28 because of financial problems and waste from member communities is being diverted to landfills such as the Waste Management-Crossroads landfill in Norridgewock and Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town. Coastal’s parent company is Fiberight.

Members of the Board of Directors for the Municipal Review Committee, a nonprofit corporation that has worked several years to sponsor the plant, held a virtual town hall meeting Wednesday in which they sought to alleviate concerns of member communities.

“We believe this plant is the solution and that we’re doing everything we can to make it work, but that said, we will not let this go on forever,” said Karen Fussell, president of the review committee’s board.

Review committee officials said the plant works and they are confident investors will be found to help with improvements and cash flow, and a new owner-operator will be found. The facility was built on land owned by the committee, which leases the land to Coastal.

Unity, Oakland and China are among the 115 communities represented by the review committee. Officials in those central Maine towns said recently that they hope Coastal reopens because they’d rather have waste recycled than placed in landfills, as it is a more environmentally sound practice. Vassalboro, Albion and Thorndike are also local members.

All contractual obligations are being met, members said. The contracts are still in place and they hope the plant will reopen within 30 to 60 days.

George Aronson, the review committee’s technical consultant, spoke Wednesday about the plant’s performance, saying the technology is sound and the committee has a plan to invest in the facility to make improvements and ensure profitability. There is interest in the plant concept and the review committee is using the temporary closure period to find capable investors and vet proposals, Aronson said.

“It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” he said.

Aronson said the review committee is casting a wide net to find an entity to come in and reopen the facility. “There are some very creative alternatives out there that we’re looking at,” he said.

Waste and baled recyclables in Fiberight’s Hampden waste recovery plant. The plant has been temporarily closed until the Municipal Review Committee can find a buyer. Courtesy of Fiberight/Coastal Resources of Maine

Michael Carroll, executive director of the review committee, said it is looking for someone local to run the facility.

“We definitely want to see somebody local and boots-on-the-ground here at this plant,” he said.

Coastal seeks to turn about 80% of the material it receives into biogas, plastic fuel briquettes, paper pulp and similar products.

The company that operated and staffed the plant, NAES Corp., of Washington state, filed a lawsuit against Coastal, saying it was not getting paid for its services and could no longer support the plant with its own money.

The review committee announced in late May that Coastal was unable to secure a $14.7 million loan to help improve the plant and cash flow and that is why operations would be suspended. One of the reasons it had difficulty is that it was unable to sell its product while awaiting state Department of Environmental Protection permits. Those permits are now in place.

Coastal also defaulted on a $1.5 million loan from the Municipal Review Committee.

Employees of Fiberight oversee the waste-processing system in Hampden. Courtesy of Fiberight/Coastal Resources of Maine

Fussell, the board president who also is finance director for the city of Brewer, gave an overview of what preceded the facility’s cash flow woes and suspension of operations. She said there were delays in the schedule for facility development as well as construction challenges, Department of Environmental Protection permit delays, the COVID-19 pandemic and the worldwide collapse of recycling markets making it harder to move product.

Carroll said the review committee is working to find temporary alternatives to sending waste to landfills and wants to keep the facility and contracts secure by working with stakeholders, the environmental protection department, town of Hampden and bondholders.

Jon Pottle, the review committee’s legal counsel, said Waste Management is the contracted backup for waste disposal when Coastal is not able to accept waste. He said the review committee sent notices of default to Coastal on the loan and is waiting to see if that is fixed with payments.

That must happen by around June 26, or else the review committee can terminate the contract with Coastal, Fussell said.

In response to a caller’s question about whether it is possible for municipalities to leave the review committee if the situation isn’t fixed, Fussell said the plant’s shutdown is considered temporary and that the committee anticipates it will reopen. She also said the review committee is not in default to its members, so communities would not be able to leave on that basis.

Pottle noted that the review committee is fulfilling all its obligations to members and Coastal is not, in terms of being able to accept members’ waste. Having the contracts in place are key to reopening, he said.

“Today, the contracts are still in place,” Pottle said. “Obligations are still there.”

Review committee member Cathy Conlow, who is Bangor’s city manager, noted that if Bangor went on its own, it wouldn’t be able to find solutions to waste disposal and she knows the temptation is to say the concept isn’t working. But Bangor remains committed to finding a regional solution, according to Conlow.

Fussell, emphasizing that “there is strength in numbers,” said she wanted to echo Conlow’s comments. She cited the value the review committee places in bringing communities together to find solid waste disposal solutions and said they are stronger together as 115 member-communities.

Another caller asked if state rules are being violated because recyclable materials are not being taken out of the waste stream. Pottle said the review committee is not in violation of contracts or obligations to its members and the suspension of operations is temporary.

“For that reason, there’s no breach of contract,” he said.

In response to a question about the definition of “temporary, ” Pottle said the waste processing permit from the Department of Environmental Protection requires the review committee to have a backup disposal facility, which is a landfill.

“We’re actually in compliance with DEP rules and regulations by having that,” he said.

Another caller asked who is paying for the additional waste transport from towns to landfills. Pottle said there is always the potential for extra costs, and those are all being tracked.

“If those exist, there will be clauses against Coastal, potentially,” he said.

Wednesday’s meeting was the review committee’s first virtual town hall and the next one will be at 10 a.m. July 1, according to Fussell. “I encourage you to continue to submit questions,” Fussell said, adding that contact information is on the review committee’s website, MRC.org.

Aronson noted that there had been confusion about the lack of confidence in the management at Coastal and the workers at the plant. One of the strengths of the operation is that there is a dedicated crew of employees there, according to Aronson. They had a learning-curve to master, and performance was improving, he said.

 

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