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Maine Senate Rejects Bill Tied to Closing MERC Trash Incinerator in Biddeford
04/09/2012   Reported By: Susan Sharon

A controversial bill that would have authorized the State to transfer ownership of the Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town to Casella Waste Systems, Inc. has been rejected by the Maine Senate. The bill was only introduced a few days ago and hasn't had a public hearing. The vote quickly drew criticism for being a major policy change and part of a complex deal to close a Casella-owned waste incinerator in Biddeford that has been plagued with complaints for years.

Biddeford city officials would like nothing more than to close the downtown waste incinerator known as the Maine Energy Recovery Company or MERC. It's been a lightning rod for complaints about its location, odor, truck traffic and other problems for more than 20 years. Many residents in Biddeford and the neighboring town of Saco view it as impediment to economic development. And now MERC's owner, Casella Waste Systems, is prepared to sell it to the City of Biddeford for a price set below its assessed value. But there is at least one catch: the state would need to transfer ownership and licenses of the Juniper Ridge Landfill to Casella for use as a commercial solid waste facility and allow for the disposal of municipal solid waste. That includes solid waste from other states.

"This is a huge issue. It's a major change about solid waste. We do not want to be the dump state," said Senator Elizabeth Schneider (D-Old Town).

She said many people, not just in her region but all over the state, are concerned about trucking in out-of-state waste and landfilling it in Maine. Under current state law out-of-state waste is not allowed at Juniper Ridge.

"And there's a lot of concern that this bill is a massive change and that people will not have a thorough vetting of this issue. It shouldn't be brought forward at this time, this late-date anyway," said Schneider.

Eight years ago the State purchased the Juniper Ridge Landfill from the Fort James Operating Company for more than $26-million using funds provided by Casella after the company submitted the winning bid to serve as the 30-year contractual operator of the landfill. Casella has assumed all costs of operation ever since. Under the terms of the bill, the company would agree to pay higher-per-ton host fees to the City of Old Town for the disposal of all municipal solid waste. It would not take in more waste than is currently accepted by MERC. And it would accept restrictions on out-of-state waste identical to current limits in place at the state's other commercially-run landfills. But members of the Maine Senate agreed with Senator Schneider that the bill deserves a more thorough and they rejected it. Chief sponsor, Democratic Senator Barry Hobbins of Saco, said the bill is just one part of a multi-prong deal to close MERC.

"Unfortunately, all those pieces haven't come together. I put the bill in as a place-holder for the issue. Unfortunately, it didn't have an opportunity," Hobbins said. "And quite frankly without proper transparency and public hearings and work sessions the bill was not in a position to go forward."

Hobbins is optimistic the deal to close MERC will happen. And he said it's time for an in-depth discussion about the role of waste incineration in the state of Maine, which continues to rely on the disposal technique along with recycling and landfilling even as other states have moved away from the practice. Joe Fusco, vice president of Casella, said his company will continue its discussions with the City of Biddeford despite the legislative setback.

"I think we'll just have to put bigger thinking caps on, if you will, and come at this with a commitment to being creative in our problem solving using different perspectives and different solutions," Fusco said.

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