On May 28, citing an inability to pay its bills, the Coastal Resources of Maine trash recovery plant in Hampden suspended its operations. This action prompted the 115 member towns of the nonprofit Municipal Review Committee – among them eight Lincoln County towns that utilize the Wiscasset, Waldoboro, and Boothbay region transfer facilities – to divert their waste from Coastal Resources, and once again haul it to the Crossroads Landfill in Norridgewock.
Coastal Resources is now being sued for $1.2 million in back pay owed to NAES Corp., the Washington state firm contracted to staff and operate the plant, according to the Bangor Daily News. But the facility’s financial woes don’t end there. The BDN also reports that Coastal Resources is seeking a $14.7 million loan “for operating improvements after it had trouble bringing in revenue” since becoming commercially operational in November 2019.
Coastal Resources spokesperson Shelby Wright calls the closure “temporary.” However, the BDN reports that, if the facility fails to reopen within 30 days, the Municipal Review Committee has threatened to terminate the contract that binds its member towns to exclusive use of Coastal Resources. But the committee is also over a barrel. Should Coastal Resources fail to reopen, the Municipal Review Committee has no destination to offer its member towns for trash other than the landfill.
In a lengthy interview we conducted with Wright on April 28 for our May 13 column on the facility’s new recovery model, she made no mention that Coastal Resources was in the midst of seeking additional financing and faced imminent closure. In an abbreviated phone call on June 10, Wright declined to share the facility’s official statement on the plant closing with The Lincoln County News.
Coastal Resources’ track record has been marred by an inability to deliver in a timely manner on promises made. Despite raising more than $70 million in capital, the operational rollout of the facility faced numerous delays. Even after its soft opening on April 22, 2019, a year behind schedule, the pathway to consistently accepting trash from all of the Municipal Review Committee member towns has been rocky. When Coastal Resources finally proclaimed itself as “commercially operational” in November of 2019, it still requested some member towns to bypass the Hampden facility and instead send their trash to landfills.
Among the entities that took issue with this was the Boothbay Region Refuse District. In a sharply worded email sent to the committee’s board members in December 2019, station manager Steve Lewis asked how Coastal Resources could claim it was “open for all” while some member towns, like Boothbay, were still being told to landfill their trash.
Lewis noted that the choice to go with Coastal Resources was intended to avoid the use of landfills, and yet some 80% of the Boothbay district’s waste in 2018 and 2019 had, in fact, ended up in the landfill. The Municipal Review Committee apparently got the message and, after that, Boothbay was not singled out again for bypass.
Operations at the Wiscasset transfer station have also been impacted by Coastal Resources’ shifting timelines. In July 2019, the station transitioned from single-stream recycling to source separation, in part owing to delays associated with the opening of the Hampden facility.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Wiscasset then abandoned source separation over concerns for employee safety in favor of the “one bin, all in” approach offered by Coastal Resources. Now, with the facility’s closure, Wiscasset has once again returned to asking residents to separate their recyclables. This has understandably caused confusion among residents – some of whom have taken out their frustrations on transfer station personnel, even though the changes are driven by circumstances outside their control.
On the cusp of this column’s deadline, we received a last-minute response from the Municipal Review Committee to our inquiries on the future prospects for Coastal Resources. The committee maintains that the plant’s closure is strictly financial, not technological, and that it is taking an active role in engaging stakeholders to raise the additional funds to reopen.
Moreover, the committee faults the Materials Management Division of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection for “unexpected and unexplained roadblocks … which denied Coastal Resources of Maine two lucrative revenue streams” by delaying permits for the sale of fiber pulp and plastic briquettes to be used as fuel.
“We will reopen the Coastal Resources facility,” proclaims the Municipal Review Committee optimistically, without mentioning its demand, as reported by the BDN, that Coastal Resources has 30 days “to fix the situation.”
One potential remedy for Municipal Review Committee member towns objecting to their trash being landfilled upon Coastal Resources’ closure, temporary or otherwise, would be to divert trash to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. waste-to-energy plant in neighboring Orrington. This diversion would be timely, according to state Rep. Dick Campbell, because the plant is operating at only 50% capacity, having been cut off during the pandemic from important sources of commercial waste.
Campbell states that the facility, which is in his constituency, has managed to increase its volume reduction to a rate of more than 90%, thus limiting the amount of residual material that gets landfilled. But the history of the relationship between the plant and Municipal Review Committee is long and complicated and may preclude what seems like an obvious option to an outside observer.
When and how the current situation will resolve itself remains to be seen. In the meantime, Lincoln County towns, required to provide waste services for their residents, find themselves once again battling forces that are beyond their ability to govern.
(Mark Ward and Michael Uhl are citizen journalists investigating recycling and waste-management issues in Lincoln County. Mark, of Bristol, is a biologist. Michael, of Walpole, is a writer.)