The proposed sale of a defunct landfill in Bucksport appears to have fallen through, prompting town officials to push the company that owns the facility to close it by 2026.

It’s the latest twist for the facility that was once attached to the Verso paper mill, which closed in 2014. While the mill was demolished and converted to an industrial office park with a salmon processing facility, the landfill remains, although it has not accepted waste since 2020.

State regulators set the 2026 deadline last August and requested that AIM Development, which owns the landfill, submit a plan to close it by the first of this year.

The company missed that deadline, saying it was in talks to sell the property to an undisclosed buyer. The Department of Environmental Protection gave the company more time to submit a plan while negotiating the sale. Four months on, though, the sale appears to have fallen through, and there is still no plan for closure, frustrating residents and Bucksport town officials.

“That landfill has sat up there for 20 years with almost no monitoring,” said Bucksport Mayor Paul Bissonnette during a recent Town Council meeting. “A lot of stuff has happened up there that the DEP just simply hasn’t been on top of and AIM has taken advantage of.”

In a March 27 letter to the town, DEP Commissioner Melanie Loyzim said the department expects AIM to “continue planning for closure of the landfill.”

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But because no timeline has been set, Bucksport officials are pushing the state to enforce the original 2026 deadline and asking that AIM submit a plan for closure by June.

Bucksport officials have long criticized AIM for missing deadlines and not following orders from DEP to maintain the facility, such as routinely inspecting the landfill’s leachate collection system and sharing a detailed breakdown of expected costs of closure.

The landfill has not complied with some environmental regulations for years, but AIM is working with DEP to meet the state’s solid waste management rules, said a department spokesperson, David Madore.

Records show there are compliance issues regarding covers over some areas of the landfill, as well as the cleaning and inspection of the leachate collection system. The state has not acted to discipline the landfill’s owner, Madore said.

AIM Development did not respond to a request for comment.

Not long after the town was told the sale fell through, Bissonnette sent the department a list of requests on behalf of the Town Council on April 4, including that regulators meet with AIM “as soon as possible to set a course forward and to begin closure of this landfill.”

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He also asked the state to order water quality tests on abutting residential wells by the end of April in response to fears that hazardous waste is leaking out of the site.

It was the second time within a month that Bissonnette and the Town Council sent a list of pointed questions regarding DEP’s decision to let AIM negotiate the landfill’s sale and miss the January deadline.

The council’s first letter pressed the department to answer why staff met with AIM without notifying Bucksport and why DEP didn’t share the result of that meeting until the town asked about the progress of the closure plan. The council also requested the minutes or recordings of the meeting.

Loyzim answered that the agency communicates with thousands of license holders over the phone, virtually, or in passing about environmental rules, and communications “are not typically recorded, transcribed or formally noted in minutes.”

She added that giving AIM an extension was not a formal licensing decision but use of enforcement discretion.

More than anything, the town feared that regulators were considering a fate for the landfill other than closure and asked the department for assurances.

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“A definitive answer as to the future of the former landfill, something we thought resolved, will determine how we move forward on these key pieces regarding Bucksport’s future,” Bissonnette wrote in an earlier letter.

Some Bucksport officials were pleased that Loyzim expects the landfill to be closed.

“I was extremely encouraged to have in writing from the commissioner that their plan was for closure,” said Susan Lessard, the Bucksport town manager, who also chairs the citizen board that oversees DEP and approves its decisions. “That didn’t come from an underling. That came from the commissioner herself.”

The response represents a major shift in tone from when Lessard first pressed DEP for details of the closure plan in January, shortly after AIM’s closure plan deadline. When DEP informed her of the potential sale, Lessard responded swiftly.

“I am disappointed that the department has chosen to give (AIM) more time to ‘consider their options,’ when they have owned this landfill since 2015, and done virtually nothing in regard to its care and maintenance until the department’s most recent letter,” Lessard wrote in February.

Despite the expected closure, other officials repeated their criticisms of the lengthy process, saying that over a decade has gone by with little apparent enforcement of violations.

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At a recent town meeting, Bucksport residents called for a stronger rebuke of DEP for failing to tell the town about its meeting with AIM and delaying the closure plan.

Several residents have said questions remain about how the department came to that decision, and they were displeased that it set closure back further.

“We don’t know who made the decision. There’s still no information coming forward about how the department actually behaved,” said Ralph Chapman, a resident and former state legislator.

Chapman was not assured by Loyzim’s statement that DEP “expects” that AIM will plan for the closure of the landfill.

“Right at this moment, we’re in no better position than we were last fall,” Chapman said. “They ‘expect’ that AIM plans for the landfill’s closure, but nothing is set in stone.”

Chapman and other residents have hosted forums about the landfill’s ongoing problems and were especially active when the town briefly considered buying the landfill a couple of years ago.

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That idea was scrapped when the town received details of the facility’s compliance issues, said Lessard, the town manager.

Now, in addition to the landfill’s closure and remediation, a group of residents is pushing for testing of neighboring wells and an investigation into the soils and water quality of the Penobscot River near where the landfill discharges its leachate.

Although the way the leachate is discharged is legal, it should be rethought, considering the landfill’s proximity to the river, Lessard said.

Lessard said the town’s main concerns are ensuring the landfill’s closure and the quality of nearby water sources, especially since fears of AIM selling the landfill and abdicating its cleanup responsibilities have passed for now.

“We’re in a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other process here. We did our due diligence, we documented the things that we see … (as) issues,” Lessard said. And although those things “may be legal at the state level, in terms of this location and this river, (they) are totally inappropriate.”

 

This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit and nonpartisan news organization. To get regular coverage from the Monitor, sign up for a free Monitor newsletter here.

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