Planning ahead is the Maine way

By Chip Reeves

Mainers have a well-earned reputation for being prepared and planning ahead. From getting snow cleared off the roof before it gets too deep, to filling the hurricane lamps before a bad storm, we always look ahead and get ready for what’s coming. Maine towns act the same way, and that is exactly what the Municipal Review Committee is doing as we plan a new integrated solid waste management system for our region.

The MRC is a nonprofit association of more than 180 Maine cities and towns, stretching from Mars Hill to Wiscasset and from Baileyville to Winthrop. Since 1991, our elected board of directors has been representing these towns and managing their solid waste disposal needs with a mission of finding affordable, environmentally sound and long-term solutions. That has historically meant managing the communities’ relationship with the PERC waste-to-energy incinerator in Orrington, but that’s all going to change in 2018.

The communities’ contracts with PERC, the partnership agreement among PERC’s owners and PERC’s own power purchase agreement with Emera Maine are scheduled to end in March of 2018. This represents a major change for our region, because the current power purchase agreement allows PERC to sell its power to the grid at extremely favorable rates that it won’t come close to getting in a new contract. This reduced revenue, combined with major maintenance needs, means that PERC won’t work economically after 2018. If our communities were to continue to use the facility, the cost of each ton of waste would at least double. Our taxpayers cannot afford that price spike and PERC could not compete to acquire the extra waste to run at capacity even if the towns agreed to double their rates.

As the reality that we would need a new solution became clear, we first tried to work with the private sector investors who own the majority of the PERC plant. MRC has had a productive relationship with these out-of-state companies for many years, and we had high hopes, but unfortunately they refused to consider any options other than the expensive path of running PERC as it is. Their solution has been to go to Augusta and try to get a subsidy. As Maine cities and towns that have felt the pain of the state’s unreliable revenue sharing, we know that we’ll never be able to depend on state money for a solution.

We needed to move on from PERC in our planning, and we wanted to open up the conversation to see what good ideas people were pursuing elsewhere. We set up an “expression of interest” process and got some great responses that we felt would work for our region. We’ve zeroed in on one technology in particular that will first recycle any valuable materials that haven’t been caught by the local recycling programs, then divert the organic materials for processing and ultimately create a marketable biofuel product.

Like PERC and any other processing facility, this new solution will require a landfill for the small portion of the waste which can’t be processed. Currently, the remaining landfills in Maine have very limited capacity controlled by others, are not permitted to take the waste we would be generating and would leave us at the mercy of high costs in a marketplace with little choice. On top of those factors, our communities’ will be best served by a single, fully integrated system which doesn’t require them to pay for service from a for-profit landfill operator.

Using the criteria laid out by the DEP and the needs of our membership, we have identified two sites (one in Greenbush and another in Argyle) that would allow us to develop our own landfill to accept residue generated from the new recycling and processing facility. Because the landfill component requires the longest lead-time, we had to start the permitting for that portion first, and we currently have an application for a Public Benefit Determination before the DEP. This step is simply to determine whether or not there is a need for this new facility after 2018, and it will be followed by the state’s rigorous site permitting process, which will consider the many environmental standards this project has to meet.

We know there are some who have concerns about this portion of our plan, and we are fully committed to responding to those concerns as we go through the process. As representatives of Maine municipalities ourselves, we have a long track record of respectfully working through issues with our neighbors in our own individual communities, and we’ll do exactly the same with the MRC’s potential future neighbors.

We still have several years before the PERC contracts end, but that’s actually a fairly tight timeline when planning for a change this significant. There are many, many elements of both project design and permitting still ahead of us as we follow the path to a new solid waste management system. As an organization, we are fully committed to making sure that our communities are as ready as they can be for this major transition.

Chip Reeves of Bar Harbor is the Director of Public Works for the Town of Bar Harbor.