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CEO of Planned Biofuel Facility Predicts Fold of Competitor

Fiberight's demonstration plant in Virginia.

Emboldened by approved state licenses and support from the Hampden Planning Board, the chief executive of a trash-to-energy company now says the Bangor area isn’t big enough for two major waste disposal operations.

Fiberight CEO Craig Stuart-Paul says he expects the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. will fold once his new $69 million cutting-edge biofuel plant goes online two years from now. But his own company is still looking for the money to make that happen.

It took five public hearings and three hours of deliberations, but the Hampden Planning Board ultimately voted unanimously to allow the construction of Fiberight’s plant. Stuart-Paul expressed a mix of emotions after the vote.

“Relief and excitement — I mean relief that we’re at the end of a very long process and excitement that now we can start construction of the project,” Stuart-Paul says.

At the competing waste-to-energy incinerator, the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co., or PERC, in Orrington, the mood was understandably less jubilant. Still, company officials have vowed to keep burning, dismissing Stuart-Paul’s technology as an unproven technology.

“We’ve still got a lot of unknowns. No one has ever built a plant like this anywhere in the world — Maine will be the first,” says PERC spokesperson Ted O’Meara.

O’Meara says the company will supplement the 30,000 tons of municipal waste it gets with about 140,000 tons of in-state commercial waste to maintain its electrical output of 25 megawatts.

Unlike Fiberight, O’Meara says PERC is proven and reliable. He says the region should also be wary of Fiberight’s process, which includes dumping 150,000 gallons a day of treated wastewater into the city of Bangor’s treatment facility.

At the Natural Resources Council of Maine, solid waste policy advisor Sarah Lakeman agrees, saying it’s hard to prove a negative.

“It’s something to be concerned about, but honestly we don’t know what is going to be in the water yet,” Lakeman says.

What’s in the water is also a critical question at the city of Bangor’s wastewater treatment facility, where Amanda Smith says on-site monitoring in Hampden should give Bangor the lead time it needs to quickly block illegal discharges of improperly treated wastewater from the plant.

Smith says Bangor won’t risk its federal discharge permit for Fiberight.

“There’s a specific enforcement plan that we follow depending on what if any violations that we come across, all the way to the point where we can tell them — and we have in the past to certain industries — said, ‘Cease and desist, you cannot discharge to us,’” Smith says.

Despite some of these concerns Stuart-Paul is confident Fiberight will ultimately replace PERC as the only major waste-to-energy facility in northern and eastern Maine.

“There’s only so much waste to go about, we have 100,000 tons contracted to us, however, PERC is an independent company and they have to do what they believe is fit,” Stuart-Paul says. “We, on the other hand, will go with the facts in our control.”

Fiberight maintains a small demonstration plant in Virginia that it uses to convince investors like its Ellsworth-based partner, the Municipal Review Committee, or MRC, that its biogas system can turn processed municipal waste — and some in-state commercial waste — into a soupy mixture to produce fuel.

Stuart-Paul says the process will result in lower per-ton tipping fees than PERC’s.

“What we do know is that 330 other examples have shown that you can process a ton of waste for around $60 a ton and at $70 a ton you can keep the lights on,” he says.

Money is driving much of the discussion on the Fiberight project. Hampden expects to receive about $600,000 annually in tax revenue from the plant. Greg Lounder, the director of the MRC, which represents nearly 200 Maine communities and solid waste districts, also likes the project savings.

The MRC is backing up its faith in Fiberght by contributing $5 million to the project. In awarding operating permits for Fiberight, state DEP officials also concluded that Stuart and his investors can come up with the remaining $64 million, a goal Stuart-Paul says is in sight.

“We’re vetting four additional offers in addition to Covanta, we finalize all our documents, once we receive those documents, 30 days thereafter, we can start construction,” Stuart-Paul says.

For now, Fiberight’s supporters are reassured by the state DEP’s recent final approval of the company’s environmental permits.

Still, some opponents, such as PERC and the NRCM, are weighing an appeal of those licenses to the Board of Environmental Protection, which has the power to send the entire project back to the drawing board.