ORONO — At an occasionally emotional meeting of the Municipal Review Committee on May 31, board members voted 7-2 to grant a temporary waiver allowing member towns to send their trash to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company.
The waiver remains in effect while the Fiberight waste-to-biofuel facility in Hampden, the Municipal Review Committee’s new partner, is under construction.
MRC board President Chip Reeves and board member Tony Smith voted against permitting the waiver.
“We’ve known all along that a landfill was our fallback,” Smith said. “The way I do business is when I sign an agreement, I follow through with it.”
MRC member towns have been bringing trash to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company, an Orrington-based waste facility that converts trash into energy, for over two decades. PERC then sold the energy at above-market rates to Emera Maine.
But the deal with Emera Maine ended this year, prompting the MRC and 115 of its then-187 communities to switch from PERC to Maryland-based Fiberight, expecting to be able to bring waste and recycling to Fiberight’s trash-to-biofuel facility being constructed in Hampden.
The transition was supposed to be relatively seamless: PERC contracts with the 115 towns ended March 31, and Fiberight planned to be up and running to receive trash the next day.
For years, the MRC also had agreements in place to take trash to the Crossroads landfill in Norridgewock, owned by Waste Management, in the event of any snags with the group’s primary facility. Trash also was trucked to other facilities, such as the Juniper Ridge landfill in Old Town, owned by the state and operated by a Casella Waste Systems subsidiary.
As Fiberight’s opening date was pushed back to July and then September, some towns, including Blue Hill and Surry, began exploring a return to PERC’s Orrington facility until the Fiberight space was up and running, rather than landfilling their waste.
Eric Spencer, a resident of Old Town who lives near the Juniper Ridge landfill, said the dumping of trash nearby was unexpected.
“The first time that we had any idea that thousands of tons of unprocessed garbage would be coming to this dump was the end of March,” Spencer said.
“All of a sudden, it’s just tractor truck after tractor truck coming in there. It’s making us all look bad.” (Old Town is not a member of the MRC.)
The MRC warned its communities that the group could be open to legal action for breach of contract with Waste Management, which owns the Crossroads facility.
In the meeting on Thursday, Jim Schatz, chairman of the Blue Hill Board of Selectmen, said that he understood the contractual obligations but felt the delay had been misrepresented.
“Our understanding was that any bridge agreement was going to be short-term,” said Schatz, adding that the community thought it would be “weeks, it wasn’t going to be months.”
Board Treasurer Sophia Wilson said she understood the desire to respect the contracts, but she voted in favor of allowing the waiver.
“I don’t see where it hurts the MRC to allow the communities that feel strongly about this to, at their own cost, send their waste to PERC,” she said.
Communities that choose to take advantage of the waiver and send their trash to PERC will pay $90 per ton, or $80 with a 30-day discount. Municipalities also will pay $30 per ton to Waste Management “for their granting of permission for interim PERC deliveries,” according to a press release.
Meanwhile, Reeves said, the Fiberight plant is well underway. The plant is expected to start accepting waste for processing on Sept. 30, with the “back end digestive part of it” being online by January at the latest, according to Reeves.
In a previous interview with The American, Fiberight Chief Executive Craig Stuart-Paul said the plant would begin accepting materials for recycling this summer.
Reeves blamed the delay in construction partially on an appeal filed by PERC and its majority owner partner company USA Energy, along with Exeter Agri-Energy.
“If we had not had that appeal, we wouldn’t be sitting here,” Reeves said.
Fiberight’s permits were issued by the Department of Environmental Protection in July 2016. That August, PERC filed an appeal asking the state to reverse its decision. The appeal ultimately was thrown out.
Several board members said they were frustrated with misperceptions and “disinformation” that was circulating.
“I’ve read some of these newspaper articles,” said Gary Bowman, town manager of Oakland.
“It gives us all a black eye. This group is a good group,” Bowman said. “I feel sick sitting here. We don’t like landfilling any more than anybody else, but we understood that when we pushed that button.”
Asked by an audience member whether the plant really would be operational within the time frame given, Reeves said, “It went through multiple engineering analyses,” adding “the technology works.”