WESTBROOK - A newly revealed plan to finally close the controversial Maine Energy Recovery Co. trash incinerator in Biddeford could have big repercussions in Westbrook – construction of a long-delayed transfer facility on land owned by Casella Waste Systems.
Casella’s history in Westbrook is a long one, as the company has put forth several proposed uses during the last decade for its land, which is located at 600 County Road, but to date, none of those plans has come to fruition.
The latest plan that could impact Casella’s Westbrook property centers on a bill to close the Maine Energy plant that was introduced to the Legislature late last week by state Sen. Barry Hobbins, who represents the cities of Biddeford and Saco. The bill states that Casella, which owns Maine Energy, “is willing to sell the facility to Biddeford at a price set below its assessed value.”
On Tuesday, Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant lifted the veil of secrecy surrounding the proposal to close Maine Energy and confirmed the rumors swirling around his city that the sale price is $10 million. However, Casavant was also quick to point out there is still a lot to be discussed and agreed to before any changes are made to the way Maine Energy handles the trash sent to is downtown Biddeford facility.
Casella, in exchange for the sale of Maine Energy, wants the state to transfer ownership of the Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town to the company and allow it to dispose of a limited amount of municipal solid waste, including trash from out of state, on an annual basis. The state owns the Juniper Ridge Landfill, but Casella has operated it since 2004 under a 30-year contract.
While the proposal was made public last week, the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, which would hold public sessions on the bill, couldn’t begin discussing it until it was officially referred to the committee, which happened late in the day on Tuesday.
“It’s encouraging for the communities,” Hobbins said. “This could be the shot in the arm (Biddeford and Saco) needed to be put over the top in terms of economic development.”
The Maine Energy incinerator has been a part of Biddeford for 25 years, and it has not been without its share of controversy. During the past decade, there have been efforts to close the incinerator, which residents have said was a smoky, smelly eyesore in their community.
In 2009, Saco Mayor Mark Johnston, who was not in office at the time, pushed for the closure of the incinerator, saying that no matter how “green” Casella tried to make it, the facility was still wrong for the community.
“Trash is trash no matter how you change the composition,” he said. “Let’s assume they can make trash look and smell sexy, a smokestack in a downtown commercial and residential area is still not in keeping with what a progressive community should look like.”
Hobbins said he’s not been privy to the negotiations going on between the city of Biddeford and Casella, but did say that “it’s good news that Casella has come to the table and seems willing to negotiate in good faith to close the plant.”
Representatives from Casella did not respond to multiple requests for comment before deadline.
Hobbins said there are “several moving parts” to the proposal, including Casella’s plans for its property in Westbrook, where a facility to create burnable pellets out of the trash processed there has already been approved.
It is unclear at this time if the company would continue with its plan to create burnable trash pellets in Westbrook, or if it would change its plans and build a transfer station there, to serve as a central collection point for waste that would then be transferred to the Old Town landfill.
There is some concern over the timing of the proposal. Hobbins noted that the legislative session is rapidly drawing to a close and therefore the Environment and Natural Resources Committee may not be able to hold all the public and work sessions needed to give the proposal due consideration.
“I just hope we don’t run out of time because I know everyone’s anxious to see this get done,” Hobbins said.
Westbrook City Administrator Jerre Bryant said Tuesday that he had no knowledge of any upcoming proposals from Casella regarding its County Road site.
The company’s original plan for Westbrook surfaced in 2001 with a proposal to build an office and maintenance garage, a project that was approved by the city that same year.
But thanks to delays in getting the necessary state permits, the plan was never implemented. In 2008, the company proposed a new use for the site, announcing plans to build a $9 million, 27,000-square-foot construction and demolition processing facility and recycling drop-off station.
As the City Council was considering approval of the proposal, residents in the area expressed concerns about the possibility of an incinerator being constructed on the land. Representatives of Casella addressed the neighbors’ concerns, pointing to a state ban on building commercial disposal facilities, saying the company couldn’t build an incinerator if it wanted to.
While there has been some preliminary site work on the County Road land, major construction was never begun.
In March 2009, the company went back to the Planning Board seeking approval to expand the scope of the project from 27,000 to 48,000 square feet, and to amend its proposal to include a solid waste transfer station.
The Planning Board approved the expansion of the plan, and after that, Casella upgraded its host community agreement with the city, offering a whole new curbside automated trash and recycling program, worth nearly $1 million, at no cost. Originally, the company was going to provide just free curbside recycling, at a value of $540,000.
While the project was approved in 2009, if Casella were to go forward with any plans for the County Road site, it would need to return to the Planning Board.
City Engineer Eric Dudley said that the approval is good for one year, meaning that construction of an approved project must start within that year and be completed within two years. Since three years have passed since the approval was granted, Dudley said, Casella would have to appear before the board once again before any project could get under way.