As a Hampden waste-to-biogas facility pushes to get on its feet, delays continue to force Maine towns to divert trash to landfills more than a year after that practice was expected to end.

Shelby Wright, director of community services for Fiberight, said that the facility is currently accepting about 85% of the trash from 115 municipalities that agreed to send waste there, though each town has sent at least some waste to the facility since April, Wright said. The company has at least twice missed its own mark to fulfill its contract with the Municipal Review Committee, the formal partnership of the 115 towns, and to begin accepting trash from other towns and businesses. The latest estimate was for the end of August, as reported by the Bangor Daily News. Initially, it was April 2018. Now, it is late September or early October, according to George Aronson, a technical adviser to the Municipal Review Committee.

“(It will be) a couple weeks,” Wright said Wednesday. “We’re right there.”

Waste and baled recyclables in Fiberight’s Hampden waste recovery plant. Courtesy of Fiberight/Coastal Resources of Maine

The complexity of integrating multiple systems is part of the reason Fiberight keeps missing its targets for when it will be fully up and running, Wright said.

“That’s difficult to answer,” Wright said about the newest cause of the delays. “We’re integrating a system that’s never — it’s a unique design. I wouldn’t necessarily call what is happening delays. I would say that they’re normal commissioning operational incidences that we have identified and overcome as we continue to ramp up the plan.”

Fiberight also has yet to undergo performance tests once all of the systems are online and to finalize permits with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to be able to market the energy products it makes. Right now, the machines are picking out resaleable plastics, cardboard and aluminum from incoming trash and producing paper pulp and plastic fuel briquettes. All but the anaerobic digester — which turns organic waste into biogas — and the mechanisms that wash and pick out glass for construction aggregate are actively processing trash, according to Wright.

“But we do have the (anaerobic digester) system primed and ready to go,” she added. “We have introduced water and tested the system so we know it’s functioning as designed.”

Previous delays, officials said, stemmed from cold weather inhibiting construction and a competitor appealing Fiberight’s environmental permits, which has been dismissed.

In the central Maine area, Oakland, China, Vassalboro, Albion, Unity and Thorndike are all impacted, as members of the Municipal Review Committee.

Until Fiberight starts accepting the full amount of waste from each town, the remainder — between about 50 and 100 tons a day — goes to landfills in Norridgewock and Old Town. Oakland’s Transfer Station Manager Dylan Clark said the town has been sending about half of its garbage to Fiberight and half to the landfill as of Wednesday.

China Transfer Station manager Tim Crotton, right, watches as plastics are dropped off at the station in China on Tuesday. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson

Tim Grotton, who heads China’s transfer station, said that in the last two weeks Fiberight took all of the town’s trash, though they were not given a green light to send anything until about a month ago.

Vassalboro Town Manager Mary Sabins said she thinks the situation is similar in her municipality, but could not confirm that without contacting the transfer station. Unity’s Administrative Assistant Kari Hunt said she was not sure if any of the town’s trash has gone to Fiberight yet and was under the impression that all of it was going to the Norridgewock landfill. Representatives from Albion and Thorndike could not be reached before press time.

Aronson, the adviser to the partnered municipalities, said that critiques of Fiberight’s delays are short-sighted and that the long-term benefits of processing waste with the company’s advanced technology are “well worth the wait.”

Fiberight aims to divert up to 80% of materials from landfills once it is fully operational, Wright said. The model is based on “redefin(ing) ‘waste’ as ‘RESOURCE,'” and upgrading trash to marketable, value-added products, according to Fiberight’s website.

“There seems to be a lot of reporting about short-term impacts, and the MRC mission has always been a long-term mission,” Aronson said. “When you look at the horizon of 15-year term and subsequent renewal, the investment in getting things right (now) is a good investment given the benefits of the long term.”

Employees of Fiberight oversee the waste-processing system in Hampden. The company hired over 50 people in the last year to work at the facility. Courtesy of Fiberight/Coastal Resources of Maine

Anticipating potential delays to the project, the MRC set up a $1 million reserve fund dedicated to covering the hauling costs for towns that are farther from the landfills than they are to Hampden. That money has bridged the period since Fiberight was first expected to be running in April 2018. In December, the MRC had used up about a third of that money, Aronson noted at the time. Aronson said Thursday that the committee is still under budget, but did not have an exact number of how much of that reserve has now been spent.

Officials from several towns said that the delay has not caused many issues for them, but that they had hoped the facility was up and running sooner.

China paid about $30 more total in the last year than it would have otherwise to send tires and some hard plastics to Penobscot Energy Recovery Co., an Orrington-based incinerator, instead of the Norridgewock landfill. The Municipal Review Committee had been partnered with PERC, a Fiberight competitor, for years before the MRC entered a deal with Fiberight. PERC declined to extend its relationship with the municipalities at the time, according to Aronson.

“It was well worth it to hook back up with (PERC) to keep it out of the landfill,” Grotton, China’s transfer station manager, said. “We should have been doing that from day one. At least (PERC) burns it for energy. … People recycle thinking it’s being recycled and unfortunately we couldn’t wait for (Fiberight) to open up.”

Aronson disputed that claim, arguing that PERC does not necessarily process all of the waste it receives. The DEP was unable to provide data on how much waste PERC landfills before press time.

Hunt, in Unity, said, “Nobody’s complained to us” about landfilling trash for a longer period than anticipated.

Clark, in Oakland, added that his interactions with Fiberight have gone smoothly thus far.

“From the amount of material we have sent to them, I haven’t had any true hiccups,” Clark said. “I’ve had a few questions on things, but they’ve always accommodated us.”

The Hampden facility has 50 employees who are paid a minimum of $17 per hour, plus benefits, according to Wright.


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