Hillary Lister was surprised when half a dozen people showed up last September for the first gatherings of Athens residents concerned about plans to locate a waste-to-energy incinerator in the tiny rural community north of Skowhegan. By December, she was hosting thirty people each week for meetings of Citizens Against Pollution in Town. And in January Lister, a twenty-something environmental activist, helped organize a protest at the State House that drew more than sixty people from across central and southern Maine. They were all opposing plans to import millions of tons of out-of-state construction and demolition debris for disposal in the state's landfills and incinerators.
In the past few months, scattered local opposition to the expansion of trash disposal projects has gelled into a media-savvy statewide network of interlinked protest groups stretching from Athens and Solon to Old Town and Hampden to Westbrook and Biddeford. Its members are using their newfound cooperation to pack hearing rooms, organize demonstrations, and lobby the legislature. The current legislative session began with no fewer than four bills aimed at addressing solid-waste issues, with more planned.
Besides local concerns about demolition debris and incinerators, the opponents are angry that the largest solid-waste company in Maine, Casella Waste Systems, has found ways to circumvent a 1989 state law that bans the development of new privately owned commercial landfills. Casella, a Rutland, Vermont-based company, owns the Maine Energy Recovery Corporation (MERC) incinerator in Biddeford and the Pine Tree Landfill in Hampden.
The company also operates the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill in West Old Town under a thirty-year lease, as well as owning or operating transfer stations in dozens of Maine communities. It recently entered an agreement to lease the Lewiston municipal landfill.
Maine law allows publicly owned landfills — such as Old Town — to prohibit out-of-state waste, and all of them do. But some legal sleight of hand regarding the definition of "Maine" waste permits Casella to import hundreds of thousands of tons of out-of-state waste every year. By a quirk of state law, no matter where the waste originates, once it is processed in Maine, either at Casella's Lewiston sorting facility or by passing through the MERC incinerator in Biddeford, it is considered Maine waste. It can then be disposed of in publicly owned landfills, such as the one in West Old Town. The Casella-owned Pine Tree Landfill in Hampden, a mountainous facility just off Interstate 95, can accept waste from out of state, but it is filling up rapidly.
As a result, the company is pushing regulatory agencies to allow it to expand its landfill operations in Hampden and West Old Town to accommodate millions of tons of additional waste even as surrounding residents complain of air and water pollution, odor, and the steady stream of trucks carrying trash past their doors.
But Casella and state officials point out that bringing in out-of-state waste actually lowers disposal costs for Mainers. It also provides badly needed fuel for waste-to-energy boilers at a time when Maine and New England are under the threat of brownouts and rolling blackouts because of electricity shortages. State regulators say they are tightening the rules surrounding incineration to address many of the concerns that opponents have. And critics of Lister and her compatriots point out there's more than a whiff of hypocrisy in protesting the import of waste into a state that exports so much of it.
just the phrase "out-of-state trash" has a heated connotation in a state as self-observed as Maine. It raises images of strangers throwing their garbage onto our lawns. Yet it remains an open question whether the issue of imported waste rises above local not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) arguments. And according to officials in the solid-waste industry, it forces Mainers to look at the philosophical conflict between a consumerist society and the responsibility to dispose of what we consume.
"We can't evade responsibility for the lifestyle choices we make," maintains Sam Zaitlin, a consultant for Casella Waste Systems. Zaitlin owned one of the largest recycling businesses in Maine, was mayor of Saco, and served on the Board of Environmental Protection, including a stint as chairman, during some of that panel's most activist years. He's well known throughout the state as a committed environmentalist. And he thinks too many Mainers are hyperventilating and hypocritical over the entire solid waste issue.
"Waste disposal is a two-way street in Maine," he says. The State Planning Office's biennial report on solid waste disposal notes that in 2003 Maine exported 8 percent, or about 160,000 tons, of the two million tons of municipal solid waste the state's residents and businesses generated that year. Millions of tons of debris from the demolished Maine Yankee Atomic Power Plant in Wiscasset went out of state. All of Maine's hazardous waste and much of its medical waste is sent outside its borders.
"The HoltraChem clean-up in Orrington [of mercury-contaminated soil] involves 17,000 truckloads of waste going out of state," Zaitlin notes. "Maine's hands aren't clean here."
To Zaitlin, focusing on the source of the waste "is a false framing of the issue. It has emotional resonance, but just about everything we use in this state comes from out of state, and ultimately it gets disposed of here."
The counter to Zaitlin's argument, of course, is to ask why Maine should be responsible for waste produced by people outside Maine who aren't willing to deal with it themselves. Zaitlin takes the philosophical position that ultimately we are all responsible. He also takes the legal position that the U.S. Constitution's commerce clause prohibits Maine from barring outside waste. And he takes the practical position that if other places aren't wise enough to see the value in generating valuable and badly needed electricity from waste, then why should Maine be similarly stupid?
"We are a society predicated on consumption yet wracked with angst over how to dispose of what we consume," he muses. "Maine is going down the tubes economically, yet we are dealing with these short-sighted issues. As long as we're dealing with [the waste] in an environmentally appropriate fashion, what's the problem?"
The Athens plant, proposed by GenPower, Inc., of Needham, Massachusetts, would generate 37.5 megawatts of electricity a day by burning up to three million pounds of wood sorted from construction and demolition debris. Lister claims the fuel would include plastics, pesticide-treated wood, and lead paint. The resulting dioxins and other harmful chemicals, she says, would endanger the health of everyone within breathing distance of the plant.
Acting Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner David Littell counters that such material would be sorted out before burning. DEP staffers point out that the new rules require, for example, that less than 1 percent of the fuel stream can be composed of plastics or asbestos. Lister argues that still translates into the potential for thousands of pounds of contaminants each day in a three-million-pound fuel stream. And the Athens facility will be just one of several using similar fuel, she notes.
Zaitlin counters that modern air pollution controls and combustion technology control contaminants well before they reach the top of the chimney. He cites a November 2005 subcommittee report to the Maine Air Toxics Advisory Committee that identified the in-state sources of airborne toxins in Maine. All four of Maine's municipal solid waste incinerators together contribute 0.1 percent, compared to 26 percent of the total attributed to green-wood boilers and 5 percent to residential wood burning. Gasoline-powered vehicles contribute 14 percent.
The core of the issue is construction and demolition debris, termed CDD. The phrase includes everything produced by building or tearing down — plywood, insulation, shingles, tree branches, telephone poles, etc.
Maine is the only state in New England where clean wood sorted out of CDD is chipped and burned as fuel in biomass boilers. "Other states don't prohibit burning CDD wood," explains DEP solid-waste specialist Paula Clark, "but it's not occurring in other states for a variety of reasons."
The fact that it is occurring in Maine at all makes the state a magnet for CDD waste. The state has at least seventeen biomass boilers that could burn the fuel, although currently only five are licensed for it. In 2004 more than 300,000 tons of CDD wood were burned in Maine, with just 52,000 tons originating within the state from waste collected at municipal transfer stations and from businesses.
CDD wood is popular because it's cheap fuel. Georgia-Pacific, for example, says it will save $2 million a year in electricity costs at its Old Town paper mill by burning thousands of tons of CDD wood in its new biomass boiler. That's the difference, G-P says, between closing the mill and keeping it and its jobs viable.
But that fuel comes as part of a much larger amount of waste that requires disposal. Companies and municipalities throughout New England pay Casella to collect CDD and get rid of it. Once processed at a sorting facility such as the one the company owns in Lewiston, just under half usually ends up in a landfill. Forty percent or so is sold as wood chips, and the balance is recyclable metals or road-building material.
In 2004 Casella buried 568,133 tons of waste at the Hampden landfill, according to its annual report to state agencies. The Old Town landfill is expected to take in up to 400,000 tons this year.
The West Old Town landfill originally was approved for 10 million tons of waste. Casella has applied for permission to double the facility's capacity. It has also sought an additional 2.5 million-cubic-yard expansion of the Hampden landfill. The company's plans for the Lewiston landfill remain unclear, but if past actions are any guide, a dramatic expansion isn't unlikely.
As demand for CDD wood fuel rises, both the influx of waste and the level of debate can only soar. "This is a statewide issue, with companies planning to bring in millions of tons of waste to dispose of here," Lister explains.
"Maine faces a huge problem," adds Deborah Gibbs, an Old Town resident who has worked for the past two years against expansion of the landfill in West Old Town, "and if we don't do something about it soon, we're not going to be able to stop it."
"I don't know if we can or should stop it," counters Zaitlin. "I'd much rather see it used to the state's advantage."
Either way, as Lister says, "This is not a debate that's going to go away anytime soon."