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As Waste Disposal Agreement Expires, Communities Seek Alternatives

The looming expiration of a 30-year agreement between more than 180 communities and the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. is triggering a major debate over the future of waste disposal in northern Maine.

PERC, which generates electricity with its Orrington incinerator, would like to keep its arrangement going with the towns. But a coalition of communities is pursuing a competing proposal involving a newer technology and a facility that hasn’t even been built yet.

Inside the cavernous collection area at PERC in Orrington, front end loaders scoop up waste from the tipping floor and deposit it onto a series of conveyor belts that begin separating combustibles from noncombustibles. Those that can burn are converted into fuel for the facility’s incinerator, which creates steam to drive a turbine generator producing 25.5 megawatts of electricity every day.

Ted O’Meara, a spokesman for the company, says the trash-to-energy operation has been a success for the region.

“PERC has a great track record, it’s been here for nearly three decades,” he says. “It has a staff of 77 people who are dedicated and committed, who run this plant extremely well.”

Part of PERC’s success is built on a subsidized contract with Emera Maine that last year was worth $20 million to the company. When its contract with Emera expires in 2018, so does PERC’s trash disposal agreement with 187 cities and towns.

The group that represents those communities, the Municipal Review Committee, or MRC, has convinced more than 60 of them to pursue an alternative arrangement with a company called Fiberight. But O’Meara says those towns considering that option should think twice, since Fiberight has only has one demonstration plant in Lawrenceville, Virginia, to prove its technology can work.

“There are 85 other waste-to-energy plants similar to PERC operating in the United States today, there is not a single Fiberight plant operating anywhere in the U.S. or anywhere in the world for that matter except for a small demonstration plant in Virginia,” O’Meara says. “I wouldn’t say it’s just older technology — it’s proven technology and it works.”

But Bangor City Manager Cathy Conlow, a member of the MRC that’s supporting the Fiberight option, says the technology is being widely used in Europe, and that it’s been vetted and endorsed by Hemant Pendse, director of the Forest Bioproducts Research Institute at the University of Maine.

“Lots of these types of plants operating and again, we’re not experts, which is why we asked Hemant Pendse to go take a look,” Conlow says. “Dr. Pendse is qualified to speak to this kind of thing, he is a chemical engineering expert.”

In addition to a smaller carbon footprint offered by Fiberight, Conlow says the company’s biogas process offers per ton tipping fees that are $14 cheaper than PERC’s.

Greg Lounder, the executive director of the MRC, says he has no doubts the company’s proposed $69 million plant in Hampden can meet his organization’s goals and keep keep tipping fees at a minimum.

“We at the MRC were provided all of the information by Fiberight and we systematically proved to ourselves that a $70 tip fee would in fact be a sustainable number,” Lounder says.

But not all towns that are current MRC members share Lounder’s confidence.

“We’re convinced that the $70 is not sufficient,” says Hermon Town Manager Roger Raymond.

Raymond says he has completed an exhaustive analysis of companies in Europe that utilize a technology similar to Fiberight’s and that communities pay tipping fees that are nearly double the amount promised by the MRC. Hermon has yet to decide how it wants to solve its waste disposal needs after 2018.

Meanwhile PERC and Fiberight are competing to get communities under contract to provide enough waste to make their operations economically viable.