AUGUSTA — The city’s Hatch Hill landfill could be home to a first-in-the-country operation that converts trash into liquid fuel.

City and state officials are in early discussions with a company that wants to build what it says would be the first plant in the United States to use a gasification process to turn municipal solid waste into liquid fuel, most likely bio-diesel. Eastern Green Energy LLC proposes to build a $20 million trash-to-liquid fuel plant.

Company officials said the Augusta plant would be their first and could be a showcase for the emerging technology.

“They appear to have the wherewithal to do what we’re talking about; it’s an interesting prospect for us,” City Manager William Bridgeo said.

The system has already been in use for many years in other countries, but so far no such plants have been built in the U.S., city and company officials said. Until recently, the economics of turning trash into gas haven’t worked in this country, as it has been cheaper to simply place trash in a landfill than to convert it into fuel.

But with high conventional fuel prices, growing interest in “green” fuels, and shrinking landfill space, company officials believe the time may be right and Augusta may be the right place to make the numbers work.

“The economics of fuels from solid waste are just now making this practical,” said Edward Crofton, vice president of Eastern Green Energy LLC, the firm developing the plan. Partners in the proposal include Pennsylvania-based Synergy Electric Power Corp. and Texas-based GGI, which has developed waste-to-energy technology. Crofton said it could be the first such plant in the U.S., although he is aware of other, similar initiatives also in development which could end up being the first.

Company officials recently met with city and state Department of Environmental Protection officials to discuss the plan.

Bridgeo said city staff have had several conversations with the company.

“We’ve being careful about not making any commitments that’d get us into potential trouble,” Bridgeo said.

“The city would not really have much of anything at risk here. We’d agree to lease them land inside the gate at Hatch Hill and divert a percentage of the solid waste to them, as feedstock for their conversion process,” he said.

Bridgeo said before the city makes that level of commitment, it would do further research into the company, its financial backers, and the technology involved.

Earlier this year, Crofton told city councilors the firm would share information on its financials. In an email Tuesday, he said the fledging firm would be established in Maine, likely in Augusta, and has substantial financial backing.

“Eastern Green Energy will be a Maine-based company, employing Maine people who have an interest in the green future of the state,” Crofton said. “The investors backing the company are major financial firms with long track records of successful ventures.”

Crofton said the company is in early discussions with the DEP and will be supplying the agency with data so the proposed technology and process can be evaluated.

Paula Clark, director of the DEP’s Solid Waste Management Division, said she and DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho recently met with city officials and representatives of the company.

She said without knowing more about the technology the firm plans to use, she could not comment on what regulations would likely apply.

“I think our next step is to set up a meeting and talk more about the technology itself, the technical issues,” Clark said.

“We’re certainly looking forward to continuing discussion about it. We’ll be in a better position to talk about the regulatory aspect once we understand the technology a little better.”

Unlike existing plants such as Maine Energy Recovery Corp. facility in Biddeford, the plant would not simply incinerate trash to create energy, but would rather use a gasification process to convert the trash into liquid fuel.

Nationwide appeal?

Trash-to-fuel technology has seen false starts before elsewhere in the U.S., such as a scrapped experimental project in Los Angeles that would have diverted most of the city’s residential trash into systems that would have converted it into fuel, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.

Crofton said the firm hopes to establish the “worthiness” of the process in Maine and then bring it to properties across the country.

“Maine is viewed as one of the most environmentally conscious states, so meeting the rigorous expectations here will establish the worthiness of this process anywhere,” he said.

“Then it will allow other states to go forward. This will be a showcase facility and an example for others. Eastern Green Energy is a start-up company planning to expand this type of facility across the eastern USA and Canada and Caribbean.”

Crofton said Hatch Hill is attractive to the firm in part because it is of the approximate size the firm hopes to build its system for, and duplicate elsewhere.

‘Energy production’

For the city, one of the prime benefits could be extending the life of the landfill, by diverting waste that would otherwise be put into the landfill to the gasification plant.

The plant would be built on land the firm would lease within Hatch Hill. Crofton previously said it could extend the life of Hatch Hill by 30 years.

It would take most items other than glass, metal and ceramics. That includes materials that might otherwise be recycled.

Ralph St. Pierre, assistant city manager, noted when the idea was proposed to city councilors that’s a downside in the view of some recycling proponents, who don’t consider it recycling.

“I would say it is not recycling; it’s energy production” said Lynn Rubinstein, executive director of the Northeast Recycling Council, a 10-state organization that advocates for recycling. Crofton said the plant would meet or exceed all European Union environmental standards and emissions would be lower than those allowed by federal Environmental Protection Agency standards.

He said no heavy metals or toxic emissions are involved in the “closed loop” process.

Crofton previously told city councilors the plant would take 40 tons of waste a day and be expandable up to 100 tons a day. At full capacity, it would employ 16 people.

He said the company would sell the fuel the plant produces, and it could produce low sulfur diesel as well as heating oil or synthetic fuels, as the market demands.