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Business and Economy

Hampden Waste Facility Moves Forward Despite Missing Goal

Despite falling short of the trash needed to fuel its operations, a new biogas waste-to-energy plant near Bangor is moving forward.

Supporters of the proposed facility say they have enough municipal contracts to make it viable. But a competing waste disposal firm says more Maine towns are renewing their contracts, which creates the potential for a trash war in the region.

The Penobscot Energy Recovery Co., also known as PERC, burns municipal waste to fuel a steam turbine that generates electricity for the grid. And while the technology has deep roots in the 20th century, it still remains very attractive to the communities that supply it. And that has been a challenge for competitors, says Greg Lounder, executive director of the Municipal Review Committee, also known as the MRC.

“I would say that the relative unfamiliarity with the new technology was certainly an area of concern,” he says.

Lounder says his organization has been trying for months to win over enough communities to provide enough waste to launch a new biogas waste recycling plant, using a process developed by a company called Fiberight.

The project got a big boost early on when the city of Bangor agreed to terminate its current arrangement with PERC two years from now. Lounder had initially set May 30 as a deadline for communities to sign on to provide a minimum of 150,000 tons of waste annually.

The MRC extended the deadline by a month, with a reduced goal of 110,000 tons. Lounder says the MRC is still about 10,000 tons short, but will move forward with plans to send its waste to a new Fiberight facility proposed for Hampden.

He says he believes the stream may ultimately exceed 125,000 tons of waste.

“There are tons in the local service area that would be delivered directly by commercial haulers and in addition to that of course there’s 25,000-30,000 tons that had intended to stay with PERC that we expect will express an interest to secure the final remaining capacity,” Lounder says.

He says he had hoped that more communities would have jumped on the bandwagon earlier.

The Fiberight operation has proposed charging a tipping fee of $70 per ton, $14 per ton less than what PERC is asking. But PERC spokesman Ted O’Meara says that while a number of Maine communities have bought in to the MRC sales pitch, many more are choosing to stay with PERC because Fiberight has no commercial operations in the U.S.

“You know this would be a very different discussion I think if there were even a half a dozen plants like Fiberight operating in the United States,” he says. “But there are absolutely none, so Maine’s the guinea pig and these towns are being asked to put up a lot of money to support something that really is all speculative at this point.”

PERC’s tipping fees also could be subject to adjustment if the company fails to continue to operate profitably after its subsidized contracts end and it’s forced to sell at market rates.

Roger Raymond, the town manager of Hermon, says his town council weighed the risks posed by both processes and voted to go with PERC.

“So they said if we’re going to stay with someone that we know can process our waste, it may cost us a little more money,” Raymond says. “But the bottom line is we prefer to stay with someone we know with an option that will work versus an option that we have no clue whether it will or not.”

The Hampden Planning Board is expected to vote on whether to approve the Fiberight facility later this month.