The Municipal Review Committee, a non-profit consortium that manages waste disposal for 115 Maine municipalities, held its annual meeting in mid-December, and still did not have the good news its members were hoping to hear. No projection was forthcoming for when, indeed if, the shuttered waste processing facility, Coastal Resources of Maine in Hampden, that the MRC helped create would reopen.
We have followed this story since the first heady pronouncements that Coastal Resources would begin operations in April 2018, employing state of the art technology to both recover a high percentage of recycled materials and create value added energy products from household trash.
One full year later, in the wake of delays to open the plant, Coastal Resources finally began to accept loads from 10 MRC member towns. By the end of 2019, according to the publication Resource Recycling, the plant “was handling mixed waste and commingled recyclables from all 115 members of the Municipal Review Committee.”
Then, in May 2020, operations ground to a halt and the plant has been closed ever since.
At the group’s meeting, MRC President Karen Fussell insisted that it was not the plant’s innovative technology, as some critics have alleged, that caused the closure, but “poor management and lack of financing.”
Her fellow board members repeatedly echoed the claim that “the technology works” suggesting their concern over mounting impatience among member towns, and perhaps the unspoken fear that MRC’s continued viability is itself in jeopardy.
Well into the second year, the MRC’s efforts to find a new buyer and operator for the Hampden plant have been thus far unsuccessful.
The power to accomplish that reopening is by no means exclusively in the hands of the MRC. While MRC owns the land on which the plant was built and holds the contracts to provide waste, the physical structure, reported to have cost $90 million, is now controlled by investors since Coastal Resources defaulted on its financial obligations.
We learned at the meeting, which we attended virtually, that investors previously rejected the MRC’s preferred candidate, selecting instead Delta Thermo Energy in January 2021 as the prospective buyer. Despite optimistic forecasts of a re-opening in the first half of 2021, the exclusive agreement with Delta unraveled when the company was unable to obtain the necessary financing.
New buyers to purchase the moribund plant were once again being solicited. From among them, MRC put forward its preferred candidate’s “best offer,” but expressed frustration that they had not yet heard from the investors.
Board members collectively assumed during the meeting what has become an all too familiar posture of deflecting on other parties the blame for this fiasco. The MRC ever-changing litany of culprits ranges over the Department of Environmental Protection, a poor market for recyclables, the former plant operators, Delta Thermo Energy, and now the investors as the proximate causes for their woes.
What can’t be ignored, however, is that the MRC set this whole process in motion and selected Fiberight to build and operate the Hampden plant (under the auspices of its sister company Coastal Resources of Maine).
There was ample evidence to suggest that Fiberight and its co-founder, Craig Stuart-Paul, had a less than spotless track record in efforts to implement similar technology on a much smaller scale elsewhere. The challenge of scaling up Fiberight’s technology to handle the high volume of solid waste the MRC towns would deliver proved daunting.
As we know, the construction and fine tuning of Fiberight’s interconnected technologies ultimately led to costly delays that perhaps should have been anticipated by MRC.
Why were these untoward consequences not foreseen? From our perspective it appears that the MRC’s overpowering desire to distance itself from its long-term collaboration with the Penobscot Energy Recover Corporation, a waste-to-energy plant known as PERC in Orrington, was blinding.
While the majority of its member towns stuck with the MRC when that partnership dissolved, about a third, some in highly vocal opposition, opted out of the Fiberight deal, a decision which now seems to have been prescient.
To be fair, MRC’s decision to sever its relationship with PERC was motivated, in part, by an impending increase in tipping fees its members would have faced in 2018. Moreover, one of MRC’s conditions in selecting Fiberight was a guaranteed low tipping fee for its members for the duration of their 15-year contracts. That low fee structure may ultimately have contributed to an insufficient revenue stream to support the Hampden plants’ lofty objective of converting as much of 80% of its waste feedstock into marketable commodities.
Whether a new buyer can be found to make the costly plant profitable remains to be seen.
One irony of this misadventure is that today three quarters of the trash generated by MRC towns is once again being incinerated by PERC. Waste from the remaining towns, including those in Lincoln County serviced by the Waldoboro, Wiscasset and Boothbay transfer stations, is being hauled to a landfill.
Many MRC towns, including some with sizable populations like Bangor and Brewer, who chose to follow Coastal Resources “all in” model, commingling their recyclable materials with the trash, no longer offer a recycling option to their residents. This outcome, fortunately, has been avoided by Lincoln County members who either exercise the option of using Lincoln County Recycling or contract with the non-profit broker, the Maine Resources Recovery Association.
On a development of regional interest, Steve Lewis, manager of the Boothbay Region Refuse Disposal District, was elected to the MRC board.
On Jan. 1, Lewis joined Waldoboro Selectman Bob Butler as the second representative of Lincoln County on the MRC board.
We congratulate Steve on his election, and hope to present his perspective on the ongoing challenges faced by the MRC in a future column.
(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.)