The state Board of Environmental Protection has denied a request to change the rules for out-of-state waste coming into Maine, saying a petition submitted by environmentalists to tighten the rules conflicts with state law.

However, the board decided in a meeting Thursday to add “environmental justice” to the standards new projects will have to meet, although the term is largely undefined and board members suggested it would likely be raised largely by opponents of a given project.

Last year, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and others submitted a petition to the board with nearly 300 signatures asking it to close a loophole in state law that allows recycling businesses in Maine to accept and then dump waste from out of state.

But on Thursday, the board declined to rewrite the rules on what constitutes in-state and out-of-state waste.

More than 30 years ago, the state took over ownership of landfills in Maine in a move designed to ban out-of-state waste from being trucked into the state and dumped into its landfills.

But the way the law was written allowed private recyclers to continue to accept out-of-state material. And once they do, all the waste in a shipment is considered Maine-generated, and items that are not recycled can be dumped in Maine landfills.

That wording has allowed a Lewiston recycler to send hundreds of thousands of tons of waste to a state-owned landfill that is run by Casella Waste. Reports from ReEnergy, the Lewiston recycling company, indicate that it sent 220,000 tons of waste in 2019 to the state-owned Juniper Ridge landfill – and about 90 percent of it came from outside the state, primarily from Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

But the board members said Maine Department of Environmental Protection officials have told the board it doesn’t have the authority to rewrite regulations that are part of state law. Several board members said they were tempted to change the out-of-state waste rules anyway, to prod lawmakers to act.

Board member Susan Lessard said that in her 10 years on the board, the subject of waste coming in from out of state has been a constant point of contention.

“We end up being the repository” for the region’s waste, Lessard said, including construction and demolition debris. “My sympathy level is low.”

Sarah K. Nichols, the Sustainable Maine director for the Natural Resources Council, said a change in the wording of Maine’s law on out-of-state waste is being introduced in the Legislature this year, and that environmental groups will focus on that to address the issue.

On Thursday, the board also took up another issue the activists were seeking: to include environmental justice as a factor in determining whether a project is in the public interest.

The board said it agreed with petitioners who asked it to establish that residents have a right to cite environmental justice in their arguments, but said it likely will be used as an argument by opponents rather than be established as a hurdle for developers to clear. That’s because the department has not fully defined what “environmental justice” means.

Paula Clark, director of the Maine DEP’s division of materials management, told the board Thursday that environmental justice is a subjective standard, and that it would be difficult to establish benchmarks for regulators. For instance, she said, opponents of a waste disposal site could argue that it would be an unfair burden on a community, but determining how much of a burden is too much isn’t something for which objective rules could be written.

Dan Thornton, who owns a construction company in Milford, said a lack of objective rules is shaky ground for building a regulatory policy.

Thornton said he objects to “rules for people’s feelings instead of a set of standards.”

Board members, however, indicated that they were comfortable giving regulators another factor to consider, even if there aren’t firm standards to go along with it. Several noted that the overriding benchmark for the state is to approve projects that are in the public interest – a standard that is itself somewhat subjective.

Nichols said her organization is happy to see that the department and board will consider environmental justice as a factor, but she is puzzled by the board’s apparent discomfort with the lack of objective standards.

There are other DEP standards that “are no less open to interpretation” than the concept of environmental justice, Nichols said. “The focus on making sure that one is crystal clear was a bit bewildering to me, but nonetheless, I’m pleased that they’ve included it.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.