The Department of Environmental Protection has issued the final permits for a first-of-its-kind waste management plant in Hampden that would convert trash from more than 100 central Maine communities into biofuel.

But despite winning the permits, controversy continues to swell around the project.

The state’s largest environmental advocacy group says it’s “dumbfounded” by the permit approval, while the organization currently handling the communities’ waste, the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co., has been drawn into a fight over its opposition to the project.

The department issued the permits Friday to the Municipal Review Committee, a group that represents the solid waste interests of 187 central Maine communities, and Fiberight, the company that aims to build the plant.

“It’s a tremendous achievement and the MRC is thrilled,” Jessamine Pottle, an MRC spokeswoman, said Monday. “This milestone will help ensure that 105 communities will have access to an affordable and environmentally sustainable option post-2018.”

For now, the permits ensure a plan is in place for the thousands of tons of waste and millions of dollars in tipping fee dollars that are invested in Fiberight through the MRC member communities.

All of the opposition comments on the permits submitted to the DEP requested a public hearing on the issue. But according to DEP spokesman David Madore, the requests for a hearing was not made in time for the DEP to consider the option — coming nearly a full year after the deadline. The rules on hearings state that a request must be received in writing “no later than 20 days after the application is accepted as complete for processing,” and Fiberight’s applications were accepted as complete for processing on July 15, 2015.

When public hearing requests were received at the time of the applications’ acceptance — this past Friday — the DEP found that there no “credible, conflicting technical information” that merited a hearing, Madore said in an email Monday.

“MRC and Fiberight have met the standards set forth in statute and rule,” he said.

The final permits are conditional and the MRC and Fiberight still must submit funding information within 30 days of the project’s approval. Some area legislators have noted a lack of specific information about the project’s financing as a key area of concern.

The DEP’s final permit issuance comes after a contentious year of debate about the Fiberight project.

The MRC contends that the plan is the best option for its communities, both financially and environmentally. Opponents say that the untested project may not be technically or fiscally feasible, and that the project violates a state statute.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine, which had submitted an opposition comment on the draft permits, said in a statement it was “dumbfounded” that the DEP approved the permits.

The council previously contended that the project proposal does not align with the waste management hierarchy, that it does not provide adequate information on Fiberight’s technical ability to run the plant and that Fiberight CEO Craig Stuart-Paul had not disclosed adequately previous violations of the EPA’s Clean Water Act from an ethanol spill in its Iowa plant. Fiberight disclosed this information to the DEP a few days before the draft license was released, according to the natural resources council.

“It saddens me that it’s being touted as the best environmental option,” Sarah Lakeman, sustainable Maine project director, said Monday. Building a new plant that relies on organic waste goes against a state statute that says reduction, reuse and recycling of waste should be priorities, she said.

Lakeman said that the three other major waste processing plants in the state have enough capacity to handle waste and that relying on organic materials, which people waste too much of already, is not a solution to the problem.

“For them, success means stymieing the growth of composting,” she said. “Success for them isn’t really success for the state.”

Lakeman also questions the technical and financial feasibility of the plant, which at first officials said needed a commitment for 150,000 tons of trash from municipalities to operate. Fiberight is now going ahead with the project with towns committing less than 100,000 tons of trash per year,and another 20,000 tons coming from other projected sources.

Fiberight initially said that the project had to have the 150,000-ton commitment by May 1 in order to proceed with the project.

The deadline was pushed back to June 30 last month. Now 104 towns have committed 98,381 tons to the plant. The MRC is also projecting that it will also get 20,000 tons of waste combined from towns that previously used PERC but are not MRC members, customers who opt to use direct waste management arrangements outside of their municipalities and commercial haulers.

Because the design for the plant is scalable, Fiberight could edit the design down to that of a plant that will process up to 125,000 tons of trash per year, those involved said.

Potential Fiberight backers “would like to see 100,000 tons” of waste from towns, Stuart-Paul said at a special MRC board meeting. At the meeting, the MRC board members agreed to waive penalties for a number of towns that will give their final decision later in the summer, whether because of later town meetings or a stalemate on the decision.

The penalty for committing to Fiberight past June 30 is $2.21 per ton, with no rebates.

Eddington, Dedham, Sebec and possibly Oakfield will give their decisions after they hold their Town Meetings at the end of July or early August. The four towns represent 1,600 tons of trash.

About a decade ago, the MRC was faced with a decision on what to do after 2018, when its long-term waste disposal contract with the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. expires. That’s also the year a deal to provide above-market-rate electricity between Emera Maine, a power company, and PERC expires. PERC had been getting three times the regular market rate from Emera Maine.

To ensure the plant’s viability, the tipping fees, or charge on the amount of waste a processing plant receives, will increase to $84 to $89 per ton. MRC members now pay $76 per ton, which drops to $59 per ton after rebates from PERC.

After looking at alternatives from a number of companies, the MRC signed a contract with Maryland-based Fiberight to build the plant in Hampden.

After recyclables are sorted out, the plant will break down organic materials with an anaerobic process that will result in biofuel. Fiberight has a small-scale test plant in Lawrenceburg, Virginia, but the Hampden plant would be the first full-scale plant of its kind in the nation.

Under this contract, the MRC will build the utility and road infrastructure for the plant using $5 million from its $25 million tipping fee stabilization fund. The MRC would own the parcel, while Fiberight and its backer Covanta Energy corporation, a New Jersey sustainable waste and energy company, would build and operate the plant.

The contract also includes a 10-year agreement with Waste Management to use the Crossroads Landfill in Norridgewock. If the plant isn’t built by March 2018, when the MRC no longer will be able to send its trash to PERC, the municipalities will be able to use the landfill. The towns also will use the landfill if the plant needs maintenance for any reason. The anaerobic and sorting processes work separately from one another, so if the anaerobic system shuts down, the towns still could send their trash to Hampden to sort out recyclables.

Municipalities that are currently in the MRC will pay a $70 tipping fee and get a $5 per ton rebate under the Fiberight contract. Towns that are just now signing on to the MRC for Fiberight will pay a $72.21 tipping fee and won’t receive any rebates.

After the DEP released the draft permits for Fiberight and the MRC in June, it received opposition comments from eight sources, including a letter from nearly half of the members of the Legislature’s joint standing committee on environment and natural resources. Both Fiberight and the MRC disagree with the assertions made in the comments.

Fiberight’s next step is to get financial backing from one of four other investors. Included in the final permits issued by the DEP is the condition that the MRC and Fiberight submit the finalized financial documents to fund the project within 30 days of receipt.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour