No room at the landfill

After decades of relatively stable waste-management practices for many of Maine’s communities, a new player entered the scene with a better mousetrap.

The developers of Fiberight made an impressive proposal to turn residential and commercial waste into industrial sugars and reusable bio-fuel. Instead of burning trash for electricity, as the region has done for years at the PERC, Fiberight promised to create a state-of-the-art facility with a new technology — peer reviewed by the University of Maine Engineering Department — that would be more environmentally friendly.

The idea was pitched to the Municipal Review Committee (MRC), a coalition of towns working together to address their solid waste management issues. The MRC board supported the proposal and member towns voted one of two ways: a) stay with PERC, or b) move to Fiberight with their trash.

The vote was split, despite the MRC strongly urging towns to move to Fiberight. Of the 180 municipalities participating in the MRC, 115 chose the Fiberight route. Among the towns that decided to stay the course or pursue another option, you would find skeptics of the technology, of the process and of the cost.

Any substantial project, especially an innovation, can experience delays. Citing a tough winter, Fiberight missed its target opening date of April 2018. Contracted waste disposal was rerouted to area landfills — a painful irony, for reliance on dumps was in direct opposition to how MRC member towns wanted their waste handled. But 115 member towns were committed. They would have to pay $30 more per ton if they wanted their trash handled by PERC. The skeptics soon felt justified in their doubts about the new mousetrap.

Now, one of the fallback landfills has notified MRC towns that it will no longer accept their trash after October. MRC says that Fiberight will start accepting trash “after September 2018” but won’t be operational until sometime in 2019. As of this writing, the Fiberight building in Hampden remains incomplete.

Selectmen and town managers face complex decisions on a regular basis when it comes to taxpayer-funded allocations. The fact that trash removal has become so expensive, and now controversial, cannot be helping stress levels — or town budgets. Many towns relied on the MRC to provide the information and tools to see around corners and understand the expense of trash removal while considering alternatives and making critical decisions about options raised by proponents and skeptics of the existing waste disposal process.

Blue Hill Selectman Jim Schatz, a veteran public official and former state legislator, recently expressed his community’s concerns. “We’re feeling abandoned, misled. We are feeling financially obligated by the terms of the [15-year] contract, but are concerned by the abysmal performance of the MRC. We have few options that don’t cost taxpayers more money. We just want to do the right thing with our waste removal.”

Maine has a history of errant public policy decisions. A 2010 MaineCare snafu that continued payments to 19,000 ineligible Mainers, electricity deregulation that raised rates instead of reducing costs, school consolidation at the point of a sword that engendered ill will and pushes to undo the marriage and now a switch to a technology, unproven in scale, that is generating costs and headaches.

Schatz summed up the scenario. “There is a lesson here. Right-to-know laws should have exposed these shortcomings with the contracts and Fiberight. MRC is supposed to be an advocate for the member towns. We need reasonable trash removal options.”