ELLSWORTH — Coastal Resources of Maine, the $70-million waste and recycling facility in Hampden owned by Fiberight, shut down in late May after an expected $14.7 million in funding fell through, forcing the 115 towns that sent their waste there to landfill their trash until the plant reopens.
“We’re behind on our bills,” Shelby Wright, director of community services for Coastal Resources of Maine, the plant’s owner, said plainly. The loan Fiberight was seeking from bondholders, said Wright, “was intended to fund the current operations, including paying all vendors their outstanding balances as well as making improvements to the plant that would make us not only more productive but also more profitable.”
The shutdown began May 28. Coastal Resources of Maine has 30 days to secure funding (roughly around the July Fourth holiday) before it may be in violation of its contract with the Municipal Review Committee (MRC), which represents the sending towns, said Wright.
Numerous Hancock County towns send their waste and/or recycling to Fiberight, including Bucksport, Castine, Blue Hill, Surrey, Mount Desert, Bar Harbor, Dedham, Otis, Osborn, Mariaville, Amherst, Aurora, Great Pond, Waltham, Franklin, Sullivan, Sorrento, Southwest Harbor, Swans Island and the Cranberry Isles.
“We provide primarily transportation to whatever station we are told to go to,” said Ben ‘Lee’ Worcester, vice president of Eastern Maine Recycling in Southwest Harbor. “It’s my understanding it’s all financial. They were taking waste on a regular basis, day in and day out. Since the first day of February, we’ve been taking waste there all the time.”
The committee loaned Coastal Resources $1.5 million earlier this year to help it secure more financing. Fiberight intends to pay MRC back when it gets its loan, said Wright, and has finally secured permits from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to market its briquettes and pulp, which officials say is key to making the plant more profitable.
“We were legitimately on the cusp of great success production-wise when this happened. The system itself works,” said Wright. The facility had diverted roughly 60 percent of waste from landfills in April, moving toward its goal of 70–80 percent. “The plant works. We have the permits to now move forward with more profitability.”
The funding issues come as the company is also being sued by NAES Corp., the company that provides staffing for the facility. NAES Corp. is alleging in a lawsuit filed last week that it is owed at least $1.2 million by Fiberight’s parent company.
Wright said NAES Corp. has left “a handful of employees still left on site,” and intends to bring staff back once financing comes through. “The goal is to secure financing and bring everybody back to work as soon as possible.” Wright said she couldn’t comment on the lawsuit.
Tony Smith, vice president of the MRC board, said that the nonprofit representing the towns is committed to sticking with Fiberight despite its repeated struggles over the years.
“I’d say stay the course,” said Smith. “This was a rocky road even once we got to this point, there were doubters all along the way, doubting the technology. The technology works, the operations didn’t. I would say stay the course.”
While a recent letter from MRC warned that this closure is a step toward the organization terminating its contract with Coastal Resources, Smith said that language on termination had to be in the letter, per the contract, but that the MRC is very committed to working to get the plant operational and profitable.
Smith said he believes in the technology. “There’s money to be made with this facility. This plant is both environmentally sound and cost efficient. Environmentally we’re landfilling considerably less than we had in the past.”
Smith, who serves as the public works director for the town of Mount Desert, said the holdup with the DEP permits for marketing briquettes and pulp “hurt … They had to pay to landfill them, which was very expensive. That was a big crimp in their revenue stream.”
The plant is the first commercial-scale application of Fiberight technology. Although the two main aspects of the process — mechanical biological treatment and biofuel production — are widely in use throughout Europe and China, Fiberight will be one of the few in the world to use the two methods in conjunction.
It’s relatively untested, but the concept of using the two methods together “appears to be feasible,” wrote engineering consultants for the town of Waterboro in 2016. Whether or not it is financially viable, the consultants wrote, remains to be seen. (The plant was financed with a $45 million tax-exempt bond issuance from the Finance Authority of Maine and an additional $25 million in private equity.)
“Towns have a lot of money invested in Fiberight,” said Worcester. “Literally millions of dollars. I don’t think they’ll walk away on a whim.”
But some officials who had initially defended the facility are getting frustrated.
Blue Hill Selectman Vaugh Leach said that he is “pretty dissatisfied with their performance up to this point.”
We’ve spent a lot of years trying to work with Fiberight,” said Leach. “We’ve had postponements and landfill and we’re paying extra money we’re not being reimbursed for to go to Juniper Ridge, a much longer trip. This is a sad, sad state of affairs.”
Leach said that while he was initially supportive of the plan, he’s not sure “that facility will even function.”
“It’s a wicked mess,” said Jeff Jewett, manager of the Blue Hill/Surry Transfer Station. He doesn’t get to vote on the matter, said Jewett, but said of the board, “I would think they’d want to get out of this contract.”
Waste from towns that were combining trash and recycling is being landfilled until Fiberight reopens, but towns that separate their recycling have the option of sending it to an alternative facility.
“They’re free to choose where that material goes,” said Wright, “and all of those communities have chosen to divert to places where they can receive their recycling credits.”
Sending trash and recycling elsewhere may cost towns more, though, because hauling contracts are separate from recycling contracts.
“Cardboard still has a market,” said Worcester. “It’s not great. It’s in the $60 a ton (range). The glass market has been nothing forever… The market has gotten to the point where you are paying to get rid of it.”
Smith said the fees are small. The additional hauling fee for diverting material from Southwest Harbor, for instance, was $32 in May for 96 tons. That will go up, of course, if the amount of waste increases. “Last year in May we had 141 tons,” said Smith. The decrease is due in part to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
The MRC planned to hold a virtual town hall meeting at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, June 17, to speak with members, and also held a meeting of the board on Tuesday, June 16, that was largely in executive session.
“I was one of the people who wanted to go with Fiberight,” said Leach. “I had some hesitance, but I did, and I kept my fingers crossed that this would all work. But, boy, there’s been a lot of letdowns. I’ve given a lot of benefit of the doubt.”
Sarah Hinckley contributed to this report.