LEWISTON — Casella's plan to build a single-stream recycling facility wouldn't be so objectionable if one thing changed, according to local activist Dan Gregoire. Get Casella out of it.
"If they could do this with someone in state, like ecomaine in Portland, then we'd know who we're dealing with," Gregoire said.
Gregoire was at the tip of the local effort six years ago to defeat the waste-hauling conglomerate's plans to take over management and operations at the city's sanitary landfill.
And although company spokesmen have said the recycling plan does not include Lewiston's landfill, Gregoire said he and many residents like him are afraid it's just a foot in the door for the company.
"A company like Casella creates contracts and they make it very hard for a community to regulate what they do," Gregoire said. "In my mind, sorting is not what they are after. This is just a ploy to get what they really want, which is control of the landfill."
City Administrator Ed Barrett said it's his job to make sure that doesn't happen. He and his staff are talking to other communities that have had dealings with Casella and working to negotiate a contract.
"At this time, I think there is no desire or interest on the part of the city or the staff to look at changing anything at the landfill operation," Barrett said. "Does this proposal change that situation? I don't think it does. The community has been very clear that it wants the city to operate the landfill, and that's where the council and staff are. Whether there is a zero-sort facility here or not, it's unlikely to change who is in control of the landfill."
A draft of the proposed 30-year lease deal could go to city councilors later this year. If the city and the company can reach terms, the company would build a 15,000-square-foot, automated recycling center south of the city's landfill at the city's transfer station. The center would take material collected from communities around Maine, sort it and sell it on the commodities market.
"We are doing our own research," Barrett said. "We've taken notes on what people have said and we're reaching out to people around the state that have had interactions with the company in the past."
But for Gregoire and state solid waste activists, it's just one part of the company's effort to build a trash-hauling monopoly in Maine and all of New England.
"It may be sometime down the road," Gregoire said. "There is so much fine print in a contract you can never be sure what you are dealing with."
Local ill will goes back to 2005 when the company began negotiating a management deal for the city's sanitary landfill. According to that deal, the company would have paid the city $1 million per year to control the landfill. Casella would have been responsible for future expansion at the landfill as well as daily management, but would have been allowed to bring in refuse from out-of-state.
First, the state Department of Environmental Protection stepped in, fearing the deal would violate a state ban on privately owned landfills. The city and the company negotiated a new deal that banned trash from out of state but would have allowed dumping ash from a Casella-controlled incinerator in Old Town — even ash that originated as trash from outside Maine. It also would have let the company bring in wood, concrete and metal recycling debris from outside Maine.
Fearing the landfill would become a mound of out-of-state trash, community opposition rose up. The plan was scheduled to go on the November 2007 ballot, but councilors decided to kill it in September of that year.
Barrett said those fears should not be a problem today. The new proposal is completely disconnected from the landfill. According to Casella's proposal, the facility would sort recyclables collected from around Maine and only from Maine. Any recycling that could not be sorted would be taken to the company's Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town.
"We are going to be very clear defining what area we are talking about," Barrett said. "It will exclude the sanitary landfill. There is just no way I could see anything coming out of this process that would let them take over the landfill. That could be exclusively stated in the contract."