With construction employees working extended hours and possibly extended shifts in the coming months, Fiberight Technology officials maintain that the company’s waste processing facility in Hampden is on track to begin accepting garbage and recycling from Maine towns by April. While the news offered a glimmer of hope in a schedule that has been delayed three times — pushing the opening date a full year past its initial projection — representatives on the Municipal Review Committee still voiced frustrations with the company putting out mixed messages to the public.

In the midst of those messages, the complexity of the process itself, and the rumors about what trash the plant will and will not take, the town of Vassalboro struck for simplicity at its Board of Selectmen meeting Thursday night. The board declined to sign a contract with Fiberight that would have the company accept the town’s single-sort recycling for three years, choosing instead to end the town’s current single-sort recycling program altogether and have a Fiberight machine filter out the materials the town’s residents discard now.

The MRC is an organization representing 115 Maine towns and cities that have contracted to send their municipal solid waste to Fiberight, where the majority of it will be converted into fuel and marketable cellulose. The MRC’s executive board assembled on Wednesday morning in Brewer for its monthly meeting.

The organization’s central Maine member towns include Oakland, China, Vassalboro, Albion, Palmyra, St. Albans, Thorndike, Unity, Troy and Freedom.

Construction of the $69 million facility began in July 2017, and operations were expected to start up in April 2018. Since that time, towns have had to divert their waste to landfills in Norridgewock and Old Town and the MRC has spent at least $355,000 of a $1 million reserve fund to cover hauling costs associated with the delay.

CONSTRUCTION

On Wednesday, Fiberight CEO Craig Stuart-Paul said that the Hampden facility construction plan is on track with its latest schedule, issued in December. This means that on March 3, the commissioning of the materials recovery facility or MRF — which picks out primarily cardboard, type 1 and 2 plastics and metals from waste and single-sort recycling, according to Stuart-Paul — will begin.

By March 31, the machine actually will begin accepting waste, with some single-stream material being fed into it starting at an unspecified date in the period of March 3 to 31. This will conclude work on the majority of what Stuart-Paul refers to as the “dry end” of the operation.

On May 7, Stuart-Paul said, construction of the other parts of the facility, including the pulper and the “wet end” — where soluble food waste is washed and converted into biogas in an anaerobic digester — will finish.

“So that’s when every element of construction is completed, shaken down, handed over and at that point we’ll start ramping up,” Stuart-Paul told the Sentinel in December.

Once completed, the dry and wet ends will work together, but they are being built to run independently, in part enabling Fiberight to meet its April deadline for accepting municipal waste.

“You have to be far along enough in the systems — in the electrical, the piping, the controls, the ventilation, et cetera — to enable the front to operate without getting in the way of the work in the back,” said George Aronson, a principal with CommonWealth Resource Management who serves as technical advisor to the MRC. “I think we will be at that point in March. I think we’re getting some comfort as to what those details are.”

Aronson toured the construction site in Hampden earlier in the week with Stuart-Paul, where he learned, for example, that the two major mechanical parts of the operation are served by separate electrical sources.

Vassalboro resident Ray Manocchio, left, and George Hamar, manager of the Vassalboro Transfer Station, on Thursday exit a building after placing trash in the building beside recyclable material containers. All of the town’s waste, including the recycling, goes to the Norridgewock landfill until the Fiberight plant in Hampden opens.

“That’s the type of thing we spent some time on yesterday to understand how those systems (the MRF and the back end) are both interactive and separated and what separations can be made so we can meet the March deadlines in the front end and still be working on the back end into May, while the front end is accepting first recyclables then trash,” Aronson said.

He also reported that while most of the major part deliveries have been made, the scale to weigh trucks and the odor control system both need to be fully installed before the facility can take waste.

“If there’s some delay that holds up the ventilation system, well that might push back the (date it can start accepting municipal solid waste),” Aronson said. “There’s always some chance that something happens during construction, but right now, we’ve been on schedule and we expect to be on schedule.”

At the December MRC meeting when Stuart-Paul first proposed the current construction schedule, he announced that the Fiberight facility will ramp up the amount of waste it will accept from about 20 percent capacity (roughly 1,650 tons) to 63 percent capacity (5,000 tons) to full capacity (7,900 tons) over the course of three months. MRC board members had instructed Fiberight to keep the months labeled one, two and three as opposed to April, May and June, until the company could prove those dates were reliable.

On Wednesday, Stuart-Paul said that commercial operations will begin by July 1, after the MRC member towns are on board. He expressed an optimistic confidence that construction is progressing well enough to support at least the March-through-May roll-out plan.

“I’m pleased to report that we are still absolutely on track to meet those objectives,” he told the MRC board. “In fact, our construction is moving ahead of that, but I’m not going to claim that at this point just in case something goes wrong. What I can say is that the risks associated with meeting those deadlines seem to be reducing as every day of the week goes by.”

Sophie Wilson, MRC treasurer and town manager of Orono, noted that if the schedule does change between now and March, she would like to see some lead time between Fiberight’s notification of those changes and when it expects those changes to be implemented.

“A lot of the frustration (I’ve heard from members) has been around feeling like there’s a plan, they’re going on a plan and then at the 11th hour, suddenly we’re asking them to turn on a dime, and it’s the turning on a dime that’s very, very difficult,” she said. “I hope that … Craig and the board could all work together to see if March is the date or April is the date and that we’re backing up and explaining to members exactly who and what time waste is going to be able to come in. … I know that, for example, the university needs 90 days to prepare for a change. They can’t just change on a whim.”

In response, Stuart-Paul noted that he will report to Aronson on a weekly basis and that Aronson will be responsible for alerting the MRC to any changes or schedule delays in due time.

COMMUNICATION GLITCHES

Wilson raised several other concerns Wednesday about Fiberight’s communications with municipal officials and the public. She mentioned, in particular, receiving a phone call from a Blue Hill resident and former Blue Hill transfer station worker that made her “ears pin back mightily.”

“One of the things that he was hearing on the streets is that the list of acceptable materials has significantly changed and textiles will no longer be accepted,” Wilson told Stuart-Paul. “I was adamant with him that I hadn’t heard anything about that. The only thing I’d heard anything about was the potential of maybe having a voluntary textile separation effort with bags and that stuff, but what’s happening? Why are we having rumors on the street about changes to what you’re going to accept?”

Stuart-Paul admitted to causing miscommunication accidentally about what recyclables — as opposed to waste — Fiberight would not take.

“There was confusion, and some of it was my fault, when we went out with the list of acceptable materials for recyclables and then we had the discussion about, well if it’s not here, what happens? Then it becomes trash, and that sort of morphed into a further explanation of section 11 of the unacceptable materials, and I think that set off the beehive,” Stuart-Paul said.

The Section 11 to which Stuart-Paul referred stipulates that Fiberight can use “reasonable judgment” to deem certain waste unacceptable based on a visual inspection at the time of delivery “by virtue of the physical or chemical properties of such waste.”

Stuart-Paul maintained that Fiberight will follow the contractual guidelines to determine acceptable and unacceptable recyclable and waste material. However, Fiberight seemed to waver on its policy about tires. The agreement states that the facility will accept “small quantities of tires” but does not define what constitutes “small quantities.” Officials offered little clarification.

“All the towns are aware on a transfer station level that we will take some tires, but if they send us a load of, you know, two dozen over the tarp on the back, then that’s going to be an issue; so we’re reaching out to them to talk to them about their options,” said Shelby Wright, spokeswoman for Fiberight.

Disposing of tires has long been a difficult task for many towns. Wilson noted that, in pressing Fiberight on the issue, she was trying to determine whether Orono needs to find a new way to get rid of the them. Stuart-Paul said the facility might expand to accept tires in the future.

“It might make sense to aggregate (tires) at the site. However, I do need permit modification to be able to store them discreetly,” he said, later adding, somewhat inaccurately, “The agreement says no tires, right? So that’s ultimately the point we can state. But we’re trying to come up above and beyond that as a service to the community. … We’ll figure it out.”

Wright said she is conducting a survey of transfer stations to determine their needs best and will address items including tires, mattresses and carpets. She said she is also compiling a list of disposal options for the materials Fiberight will not accept now.

“We’re figuring all that out and we’ll deal with it as we need to,” she said.

Wilson analogized the company’s apparent waffling on what materials it would accept to a Hail Mary in football.

“The Hail Mary comes at the very end of the game, right?” she said. “And it doesn’t matter whether or not your quarterback has any accuracy at 50 yards; he’s still going to through the Hail Mary, and sometimes somebody catches it. I think that if somebody was trying to throw a Hail Mary right now to keep themselves viable, we should be protecting ourselves against that. That’s all. I’m not saying you’re doing anything bad, Craig. I’m saying we’ve got mixed messaging going on.”

She added — and the MRC board largely agreed — that going forward, the two groups need to work more closely together on communications.

“What is difficult is when the landscape appears to be continually changing,” Wilson said. “So when we’ve been given a message, we’ll take that message to the bank. And when there’s now competing noise coming in, it’s going to confuse people. … My fear is that if it’s not a very well thought out communication to the world — we need to be very careful about what we’re telling members.”

MRC Vice President Karen Fussell, who is also Brewer’s finance director, said the MRC’s communications committee will meet in early February to begin coordinating a public relations campaign about the opening of the facility. Wright will be involved with this process in an attempt to achieve more consistent messaging between MRC and Fiberight.

“We can’t have you guys getting out ahead of us or us ahead of you. We’ve got to do it all at the same time,” MRC board President Chip Reeves said.

“So noted,” Stuart-Paul replied. “We need to be unified.”

VASSALBORO

Wright informed the MRC that she has finalized a contract for towns to sign if they want Fiberight to accept their single-sort recycling. She said she wants to wait to coordinate with the MRC before sending the document out to member towns. However, four towns, including Vassalboro, had reached out to her before Wednesday, requesting the document.

Vassalboro was scheduled to be one of the first towns to sign the contract at its Thursday night meeting. The town has participated in single-sort recycling — where residents separate a range of recyclable materials from other trash — for a number of years.

However, on Thursday, the board unanimously voted not to sign the three-year contract — and to end single-sort recycling in the town completely, effective immediately. Selectman John Melrose pointed out that Fiberight’s MRF machine filters out the material that residents would separate independently for single-sort recycling and that stopping the single-sort program would save money.

“In a sense, we’d be (paying per ton) to separate the recycling and take it up (to Hampden) when they’ve developed a system that already does that,” Melrose said.

Board Chairman Lauchlin Titus added that all of the town’s waste — including the single-sort recycling — currently goes to the Norridgewock landfill, where it is not recycled at all, anyway. Having residents stop separating their garbage, therefore, does not change where it ends up before Fiberight opens.

“Simpler is better,” said Robert Browne, the town’s third selectman.

Vassalboro residents still will be required to separate cardboard from other waste, in accordance with a town ordinance. Town Manager Mary Sabins told the selectmen that they could choose to repeal that ordinance at their next meeting. The town’s cardboard now is sent to China’s transfer station to be recycled.

OTHER MRC TOPICS

In other news, the date that Coastal Resources will begin leasing the Hampden site from the MRC, which owns the property, was pushed from April 1 to July 1. This delay decreased the MRC’s revenue prediction from $93,750 to $62,500 as a result. To make up for the loss, Aronson proposed the idea of investing two pots of the MRC’s money in U.S. Treasurys to generate an expected annual revenue of about $140,000 total. The board unanimously voted to pursue that option, contingent on it receiving approval from the board’s legal advisor, Dan McKay, a Bangor-based lawyer from Eaton Peabody.

The MRC board also discussed re-calculating the compensation towns receive for having to haul trash to Norridgewock and Old Town landfills while they wait for the Fiberight facility to be completed. Municipalities have reported an increase in flat tires and wear on hauling trucks caused by the extra mileage they have to travel. The group’s Waste Flow Committee will discuss that issue Wednesday.

“The problem to me is how do you identify regular wear and tear from wear and tear caused directly by the additional mileage of going to Norridgewock?” Reeves said.

Oakland Town Councilor Dana Wrigley formally replaced Oakland Town Manager Gary Bowman on the MRC board at the group’s first meeting of the year. On Wednesday, Wrigley was voted onto the Waste Flow Committee, filling Bowman’s vacated seat. Ralph Saucier was appointed to the Communications Committee. Bowman also served on that committee before his departure from the board. At an Oakland Town Council meeting in the fall, Bowman voiced his desire to step down from the MRC in order to focus on his work with the town, which is in the process of finalizing its comprehensive plan.

Reeves, Fussell and Wilson were each re-elected unanimously to their roles as president, vice president and treasurer of the MRC board, respectively.

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins

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