A waste-to-energy proposal that many central Maine communities are counting on to take care of their waste disposal needs for the next 15 years has been scaled back to a size proponents say ensures the plant will be economically feasible as other communities opt out.

The 86 communities that had signed on by Tuesday would provide about 87,500 tons of trash a year, and proponents originally had said the plant needed 150,000 tons of municipal waste a year to be economically feasible.

Greg Lounder, executive director of the Municipal Review Committee, said Tuesday the reconfigured project is “huge” as far as making the project economically feasible for the towns and cities that have signed on.

The MRC, which represents Maine communities that take their trash to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. incinerator in Orrington, has proposed the state-of-the-art Fiberight plant in Hampden as a solution when the MRC contracts expire in 2018. Fiberight, touted as the first of its kind, will produce natural gas from organic trash and recyclables will be sold. At stake are hundreds of thousands of tons of waste and millions of dollars the communities pay for disposal.

Vassalboro on Monday night became the latest community to commit its waste to the plan with a 15-year contract, bringing the total committed tonnage to about 87,500 tons from the 86 communities that have signed on, Lounder said Tuesday.

Officials previously had said 150,000 tons of committed mixed solid waste was needed for the Fiberight plant to be financially feasible, but that amount has been revised downward to about 110,000 tons in the scaled-back operation, Lounder said.

He said the need to study a smaller-scale operation project became necessary after several MRC communities decided against joining the Fiberight proposal.

“What really caused us to take a hard look at that was the fact that a number of communities on the periphery of the MRC area have opted to make other arrangements,” Lounder said. “So, with a sizable faction of service territory making arrangements at distant facilities, we had to take a serious look at whether the project’s economics could be sustained at a smaller scale. And fortunately, that’s proven to be the case.”

Fiberight, a Maryland-based company, plans to build a plant that will convert the organics in trash into industrial sugars and bio-fuels and separate out recyclables for sale.

Lounder said MRC recently conducted a detailed analysis of Fiberight’s financial operation, which included two scenarios. That review confirmed that the Fiberight plant would be financially sustainable if constructed to accept either 180,000 or 110,000 tons of mixed solid waste per year, according to the MRC.

Lounder said Fiberight expects to receive thousands of tons in commercial solid waste in addition to the municipal waste to reach either goal.

Tipping fees — the amount communities pay for disposal — would be $70 per ton, although rebates are applicable to lower the costs more for some communities, he said.

Communities still have until June 30 to commit to the Fiberight proposal, and Lounder said the amount of tonnage committed by then will determine the size of the plant. The deadline was originally May 1, but the sign-up period was extended a month ago until the end of June to allow more communities time to consider signing on.

The trash decisions are looming because a deal between power company Emera Maine and PERC to provide above-market-rate electricity expires in 2018. At the end of March 2018, long-term waste disposal contracts between PERC and about 180 towns and cities in the state, most under the MRC umbrella, will end. The MRC doesn’t think PERC will be able to survive after the Emera Maine agreement expires, but has said if it does, rates will skyrocket.

The Fiberight plant would be up and running by April 1, 2018; the PERC contracts end March 31.

MRC has proposed Fiberight as the only viable option to PERC, but some MRC communities, including Waterville and Fairfield, have rejected the proposal to pursue other alternatives, including hauling trash to a landfill.

The Waterville City Council last month voted to accept the city’s solid waste committee’s recommendation not to send its trash to Fiberight and instead to explore all options. Waterville officials are considering whether to enter into a one, three or five-year contract with the Waste Management Crossroads landfill, run by Waste Management Solutions in Norridgewock.

The fact the Fiberight plant will be scaled back doesn’t change the view of Fred Stubbert, chairman of Waterville’s Solid Waste Committee, who thinks “the whole thing appears to be a development project funded by the ratepayers” that will cost more than estimated because it’s a risky “start-up” venture.

“The size of the (Fiberight) plant initially really was bigger than what they needed for the area … at expense of ratepayers,” Stubbert said. “Size doesn’t really matter. One thing our committee said was, assuming it’s successful, there’s no reason we couldn’t put a plant right here in central Maine.”

Only communities that have committed by June 30 will be guaranteed disposal capacity at the plant in 2018 and beyond, according to the MRC. The group also said member communities taking a wait-and-see approach to their trash decisions may later find themselves “stranded” if other options don’t work out, Lounder said.

“One key aspect of the Fiberight process that attracted the MRC from the start is its ability to scale its operations to suit the size of the municipal group that ends up remaining committed to solving problems by sticking together and leveraging our strength to keep pricing affordable for taxpayers,” said an MRC email this week to member communities. “This approach has worked well for years and will continue to do so after 2018.”

Lounder said any community on the fence about the Fiberight option should be heartened by the study showing the plant will be financially viable at 110,000 tons and should take a close look before the June 30 deadline.

“We’re confident we’re well on our way to reaching our goal and seeing a facility financed and constructed,” Lounder said Monday.

But Stubbert isn’t convinced that there’s a big rush to make a decision. He said Waterville and Augusta, with its Hatch Hill landfill, might be able to work out a longer-term arrangement.

Stubbert said Waterville’s Solid Waste Committee is still active and will continue to explore options.

“We’ve talked to Augusta,” Stubbert said. “They got about 15 years in their landfill, so they’re not pressed to do anything. Who knows? Maybe we team up with Augusta 15 years from now. Between us, we have well over 100 tons a day.”

Waterville’s relationship with the Crossroads landfill has been corrected in this story.


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