H. Lister: No need to rush Casella contract

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On Tuesday, Jan. 22, Lewiston councilors are planning to vote on entering a 20-year contract with Casella Waste to operate a single-stream recycling facility.

The outcome of that vote could have lasting impacts on how much out-of-state waste is imported to central Maine.

The single-stream facility would be allowed to process “cardboard, plastic, and other acceptable materials” from Casella’s KTI Biofuels processing center.

KTI imports over 180,000 tons a year of construction and demolition debris (CDD) from out of state. Seventy five percent of the CDD is used as “alternative daily cover” in the state-owned, Casella-operated Juniper Ridge dump in Old Town and Alton.

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Former Rep. Bob Duchesne’s district included Alton, one of the host towns to Juniper Ridge. He wrote a letter to DEP Commissioner and former Casella lobbyist Pat Aho in October 2011, expressing concern that Casella was using KTI to import out-of-state waste. He commented, “Figures show that the apparent role of KTI Biofuels is not to produce biofuels … It is to convert out-of-state waste to in-state waste for purposes of disposal at Juniper Ridge.”

Casella has tried twice to gain contracts to dump CDD from KTI in Lewiston’s landfill. In 2005, Lewiston councilors entered negotiations to give Casella to control the city landfill. The plan was nixed following Attorney General’s Office investigations of the plan for violating state waste policy.

Two years later, officials from Lewiston, Biddeford and Saco entered talks with Casella to develop a plan for closing the company’s MERC incinerator within five years. Casella President Jim Bohlig said the Lewiston landfill could become a “fairly reasonable replacement” for the company’s MERC incinerator in Biddeford.

Casella returned to Lewiston councilors in 2007 with a plan that would have allowed the company to dump out-of-state CDD waste in Lewiston’s landfill and expand it 16 acres to 80 acres, while reducing the dump’s capacity for Maine waste. Area residents organized opposition to the plan, which was eventually voted down by councilors.

In July 2012, Biddeford councilors voted to pay Casella $6.65 million for purchase and closure of MERC by the year’s end. In August, Lewiston councilors voted to again enter contract negotiations with Casella, this time to operate a single-stream recycling facility at the River Road transfer station.

Former Biddeford Councilor Percy Aberle spoke about his city’s experiences with Casella at Lewiston’s Jan. 8 council meeting. He explained, “I’m here to caution you to really re-think a 20-year contract. Biddeford signed a 17-year contract, and Casella Waste didn’t hold up to their end of the bargain. …You’re going to regret it, signing into a contract for 20 years. Other city councilors and other mayors in the future are going to have to live with that contract.”

Casella is in a precarious financial situation, having replaced its president on Dec. 3, the same day Casella stock fell to its lowest price in over two years. This followed a $9.7 million loss to shareholders, related to paying off debt.

In 2012, Casella had over $580 million in outstanding debt, much of which is due in the next three years, while it had only $480 million in revenue.

The proposed contract puts taxpayers on the hook for $310,000 if it a cold storage building must be built to store materials for processing.

Lewiston owns and operates its landfill, with over 40 years of disposal capacity at current rates of use. Landfill space is in short supply and high value these days.

The Legislature will be considering bills determining the future of Maine’s waste policy this session, with a focus on controlling out-of-state waste, preserving Maine landfill capacity for Maine waste, and promoting good recycling jobs.

The proposed contract between Lewiston and Casella is currently filled with holes that could open the floodgates for out-of-state waste, at the expense of Maine taxpayers and good policy.

The presence of Casella’s incinerator gained Biddeford the nickname “Trashtown USA.”

Lewiston was named an All-America City by the National Civic League in 2007, and listed as one of the 35 Healthiest Communities in the country by Business and Development Outlook.

The Farmers Insurance Group recognized the Lewiston-Auburn area as one of the safest places to live in the country in 2006. The ranking included consideration of environmental hazards.

Lewiston councilors will be remembered for helping their city and surrounding communities if they proceed with caution. There is no need to rush into a 20-year commitment that risks making Lewiston and Auburn the new trashtowns of America.

Hillary Lister lives in Athens, and began researching out-of-state waste in Maine following a fire at a waste facility in that town. Over the past 10 years she was worked with concerned citizens in Lewiston, Auburn, Old Town, and Biddeford on best practices for waste handling, and is working with legislators to craft policy that benefits Maine people and controls out-of-state waste.

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