Trash talk

It’s February 2018, and that means where our trash goes is about to change.

The Municipal Review Committee, a consortium of 187 towns, ends its business relationship with the Penobscot Resource Energy Co. on April 1.

At last count, 111 of those towns plan to stick with the MRC and begin sending their trash to a facility currently under construction in Hampden that will be operated by Fiberight. The remaining 63 towns have set up new contracts with PERC to continue sending their trash to the waste-to-energy plant in Orrington.

The relationship between PERC and the MRC, whose charter member towns own 23 percent of the Orrington plant, has been strained since the MRC put out a request for proposals for new companies to work with. That was nearly five years ago.

The fight intensified in 2014 when the Minneapolis-based USA Energy Group, which has a just over 50 percent ownership stake of the PERC plant, asked the MRC to help cover costs of a lobbying effort the towns had opposed. Following settlement of that suit in the fall of 2016, an MRC board member called it “one of the most expensive lobbying efforts in the history of the legislature.”

Construction of the Fiberight plant is a bit behind schedule. Two years ago, Fiberight CEO Craig Stuart-Paul said the facility would be up and running months before the March 31 deadline. Last year, the word was it would open in April. Now we’re hearing July.

In the interim, some towns waiting to make the move to Fiberight will send their trash to a landfill facility in Norridgewock, and some may make agreements with PERC to continue going there for a few more months.

There was understandably some nervousness and skepticism about the Fiberight plan when it was first presented. The technology is new, and the facilities that do already use it are far afield. But the leaders of the MRC did their homework with this plan, and a garden-variety construction delay shouldn’t change anyone’s confidence in their ability to make it work.

According to the Maine Resource Recovery Association (MRRA), the conversion of organic waste into biogas, part of what the Fiberight plant will do, is more realistic for rural communities than large-scale composting of food waste. A “second pass” through the waste stream is expected to recover an additional 20 percent of recyclable material. “MRC’s Fiberight project, coupled with existing local programs, may well be how we finally reach 50 percent recycling” in the state, an MRRA statement said.

“We didn’t have any backup in 1989 when we designed the agreement with PERC,” MRC consultant George Aronson told the Bar Harbor Town Council two years ago. “We went to great pains this time to keep towns insulated from risk. We wanted to have the financing be on the vendor and not on the MRC. With this agreement, we can say to Fiberight, ‘If you can’t make it work, don’t come to us. We’ll foreclose and go to Plan B.’”

So now that the rubber is about to hit the road, Fiberight deserves the benefit of the doubt. Watching and waiting for the new guy to fail is not neighborly. And even if something does go wrong, the towns won’t be left holding the bag.

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