Editorial: The grass isn’t always greener 

For the better part of a decade, the Municipal Review Committee, a member-driven nonprofit that at one time managed the municipal waste of 187 towns in Maine, knew that the lucrative power-purchase contract the Penobscot Energy Recovery Corporation (PERC) plant in Orrington had with the electric company once known as Bangor Hydro would end in 2018. Prior to that date, PERC was receiving above-market rates for the energy the plant generated by burning trashThe end of that contract meant that disposing of municipal waste had the potential to become more expensive if nothing was done.  

In 2014the MRC decided to break from PERC with the promise of lower costs and a more environmentally sustainable modelIt signed a 15-year contract with Fiberight to construct Coastal Resources of Maine. The technology was exciting but unproven. And four years turned out to be not nearly enough time to permit and build a replacement plant. Permits were issued in June 2016, which gave less than two years before the April 2018 deadline.  

The MRC also was unable to unite its then members in favor of the soon-to-be-constructed Fiberight plant. The 187 towns that comprised the MRC fractured, with one-third staying with PERC and the rest staying with MRC and signing on to Coastal Resources of Maine. Ultimately the plant took longer than anticipated to construct, causing municipal waste to be diverted to a landfill for many months 

In the interim, some towns, such as those on the Blue Hill Peninsula, which agreed to stay with MRC but did not want to send trash to a landfill, voted to keep sending waste to PERC citing environmental concerns and the length of time it was taking for the plant’s construction. Because the towns were obligated per their contract with MRC to send waste to the “backup” landfill location, the MRC gave the Blue Hill-Surry transfer station a $30,000 bill to cover the cost of the tonnage it should have sent to the landfill. Rather than face legal action, municipal officials reluctantly paid the bill.  

Now, barely a year into operations, Coastal Resources of Maine is out of money and has had to cease operations while it looks for more funds to keep it afloat. The MRC has loaned it $1.5 million and the third-party plant operator claims it is owned $1.2 million in unpaid labor costs. Again, municipal waste is being diverted to the “backup” landfill location while the plant sits idle. 

The MRC was negligent in its duty to the 187 towns it represented prior to the split. It was unable to bring a workable solution for municipal waste in a timely manner and it was unable to achieve the buy in of its members needed to ensure the plant would be viable. Instead, the fracture has caused both Coastal Resources and PERC to operate at lower-than-anticipated levels, which in turn has made each less profitable. And now, once again, the trash intended for Coastal Resources of Maine is headed to a landfill—the worst possible outcome for the towns and, frankly, for the environment.  

In 2016, the Natural Resources Council warned against the MRC’s move to Fiberight in an op-ed published in the Bangor Daily News. “The outcome of these 187 individual town decisions will determine whether PERC survives, Fiberight moves forward or both collapse because neither secures enough waste to be economically viable.” Two years later, the words hold true 

Yes, the PERC plant was in need of upgrades, and yes, costs were likely to rise post-2018, but PERC had proven it can handle municipal waste and its business model has worked for more than 25 years.  

We urge the MRC to find a solution quickly to the problem it created and lead its member towns forward in a way that is good for the bottom line and for the environment.

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