September 30, 2023

Cash in the Trash? West Old Town Landfill touted as savior for G-P workers, but neighbors say it’s a backdoor dump deal

About 15 years after Maine legislators decided that municipal landfills had to be capped and any new landfills had to be state-owned, the decision is creating renewed debate in west Old Town.

On Thursday, the state purchased the Georgia-Pacific Corp. landfill in that neighborhood and plans to turn it into a repository for tons of waste, with the process to be managed by Vermont-owned Casella Waste Systems Inc., which also runs the Pine Tree Landfill in Hampden.

Also on Thursday, Casella and the state made final an operating agreement that allows Casella to run the landfill.

The state sees it as a badly needed site for municipal waste, Casella sees it as a desirable expansion in Maine, and Georgia-Pacific sees benefits from the sale as a means of remaining competitive in the harsh papermaking market in which Maine mills are struggling.

But landfill neighbors fear the worst and, saying they

have not been adequately notified of the magnitude of the arrangement, view the process as a “backdoor dump deal” that they won’t be able to stop from entering their towns.

After researching several options, G-P officials see the transaction as the only chance to keep the Old Town mill open. Casella gave the state the $26 million to purchase the landfill from G-P, which in turn agrees to use that money to build a biomass plant to cut energy costs. The mill also will get a reduced tipping fee from Casella.

By drastically cutting energy costs the company will be able to retain precious jobs in a region where mills are closing all around them.

State officials view the deal as an inexpensive way to resolve Maine’s solid waste problem. Many landfills around the state will reach capacity within a decade. An amendment application being considered by the Department of Environmental Protection seeks to expand the landfill vertically and to change its purpose to allow municipal and construction waste, in addition to the G-P mill sludge.

Casella sees the deal as a way to expand its business interests and to take the pressure off other landfills in the state, specifically its Hampden location.

When G-P faced cutbacks in April 2003, the city of Old Town was in jeopardy of losing a large portion of its tax base, and valuable jobs. With the sale, not only will that tax base be retained, but Old Town and Alton will receive host benefit packages that will provide monetary compensation from Casella.

Gov. John E. Baldacci called the agreement a win-win opportunity for Maine people.

But not everyone agrees.

“I can understand the council wants to bring revenue into this town, but at what stake?” Old Town resident Robert Dudley asked.

Landfill neighbors

Residents have repeated that they feel they have been left in the dark on the deal. Councilors and state officials disagree, saying that legal notices on public hearings were published in the newspaper, that abutting landowners were sent notices by certified mail, and that residents should have done their homework sooner in the process. All but three certified letters were delivered and signed by residents.

“This has all just happened too fast,” said Debbie Gibbs of Alton last month. “If it goes through, then our whole life changes.” The Gibbses are among several couples in the area who have said they plan to move if the deal is approved.

They also are members of the recently formed We The People, a group of concerned residents from Old Town and surrounding towns who oppose the landfill expansion and are seeking more information.

“We realize they have to have a landfill, and no matter where they put it, it’s going to have an impact on wildlife,” Gibbs said. “But right now, it’s having an impact on human life.”

Residents are concerned about the amount of water – three streams, the Alton Bog, and other wetlands – that surround the area and the effect the landfill will have on water and air quality.

“You can’t find a place in Maine where there isn’t water,” argued Don Meagher, manager of planning and development for Casella. “If you look at the site, it’s fairly distant from roads, residences and any important resources.”

Meagher said he realizes that solid waste is not a pretty thing but that supporters and opponents of the landfill have something in common. They all generate waste that needs disposal, and landfills are the current acceptable method.

“This landfill would have caused the same reaction anywhere in the state,” Meagher said.

Maggie Drummond of the Toxics Action Center, a Portland-based nonprofit environmental and public health organization, defended residents’ response.

“Maine communities already have been stripped of their right to regulate these dumps, and now it seems as though their right to know what the public and environmental threats might be is being taken away,” she said.

“The only way that the state can really explain this deal is by shining the light on all parts of it so the public can get some answers to their questions. The more we deal with this behind closed doors, the more problems we’re going to have,” Drummond said.

For almost a month, residents have been scrambling to learn as much as they can, although the process of changing the landfill’s status and ownership began last spring.

“It’s what they’re not saying that concerns [me],” Debbie Gibbs said.

Residents don’t feel that the DEP has allowed adequate time for researching and testing the site, especially after DEP geologist Dick Behr said there was a possible leak in the primary liner of the West Old Town Landfill. Behr reported to DEP officials in December 2003 that the water quality in the area had changed, based on results from several of the test wells.

Mike Curtis, G-P’s environmental manager, said those changes likely were because of high truck traffic in the area of the wells on the landfill site.

“I think he [Behr] was really just trying to be as conservative as he possibly could when he looked at the data,” said Pete Maher of Sevee & Maher Engineers Inc. of Cumberland, which contracts with Casella.

Anytime there is construction activity and land is disturbed, water quality will be affected, Maher said.

“We have some very slight impacts out there,” he said.

Until recently, Behr was able to answer questions directly from the press and public regarding his findings, but now inquiries to him must be relayed to the DEP’s project manager, Cyndi Darling.

“I have all kinds of time [to talk],” Behr said recently, “but I’m not the person you can speak to about this right now. You need to speak to the project manager about this work.”

But when Darling is contacted, a recording gives callers a toll-free number to call the Augusta office where they are shuffled among officials who are reluctant to provide information.

“We have never run into a roadblock like that before,” said Maggie Drummond.

“In my experience working with community groups, we’ve had free access to DEP officials who have the expertise to answer our questions,” Drummond said. “One part of this that bothers me is the distrust of the DEP that is beginning to formulate.”

Even legislators admitted they didn’t fully understand the magnitude of this sale before they voted on it during a midnight session.

“I don’t blame anybody other than myself,” said state Sen. Mary Cathcart, D-Orono. “I didn’t really understand how big it was going to become at the time.”

Cathcart said the deal was presented as a way to save the 150 jobs on the line at G-P.

“I’m in favor of making sure that all the questions get answered at this point,” Cathcart said. She met with DEP Commissioner Dawn Gallagher on Tuesday to learn more about the process and to advocate for more public information meetings so that questions about safety and the environment can be answered before a decision is made.

“Obviously none of us want a landfill down the street or in our back yard,” she said. “It’s not an attractive thing for your neighborhood.”

Residents said they don’t plan to give up. If the deal doesn’t go through, they want to push for regulations that would prevent future threats to their neighborhood.

“We’re not going down without a fight,” said Alton resident Charlie Gibbs.

Gibbs and others will have a chance to face DEP officials from 3 p.m. until 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 24, at the Ramada Inn on Odlin Road in Bangor. People can ask questions and express concerns to representatives of DEP, Maine Department of Transportation, the State Planning Office, Georgia-Pacific and Casella.

Georgia-Pacific Corp.

There is no guarantee the Georgia-Pacific mill will remain open even if the landfill sale is completed, but with no sale, the mill’s fate is certain.

“Without it, we are going down. There will not be a mill,” G-P controller Rick Douglas said this week.

It costs G-P $1 million a year to run the landfill, plus an additional $2 million to $3 million every three or four years in construction expenses. By reaching the agreement in which Casella will provide G-P with a place to dispose of its sludge for the next 30 years at a tipping fee of $10 per ton, the mill’s costs will be reduced by approximately two-thirds, according to Casella’s Meagher.

Casella also has agreed to sell G-P construction and demolition debris to help fuel the mill’s proposed biomass boiler at a reduced rate.

“Even though we’re selling our interest in the landfill, G-P still has 30 years to use the landfill to get rid of sludge,” G-P’s Douglas said.

In addition, he expects the boiler, which could take 10 to 12 months to build if it’s approved, will create four or five more specialized jobs at the mill once it is running.

“We cannot afford any more job losses in these mills and in the manufacturing sector,” said Jonathan Daniels, president of Eastern Maine Development Corp. He said he hopes this deal will be used as a model statewide for trying to save other manufacturing operations.

Host communities

“It’s economic survival,” Old Town City Councilor Scott Cates said at a recent meeting. “What we’re attempting to do is save 35 to 40 percent of our tax base.”

As host communities, Old Town and Alton will develop a compensation agreement with Casella, pending the DEP’s approval of the amendment application.

Old Town is slated to get $600,000 to $700,000 per year, while Alton will receive $60,000 to $70,000 per year. The landfill site is located in Old Town, while the entrance is just across the town line in Alton.

After writing an opinion piece in favor of the landfill deal, in conjunction with members of the G-P union, city officials were called on the carpet by townspeople. The op-ed piece was published in the Bangor Daily News.

Councilors said they are relying on the DEP to make an informed and educated decision regarding the fate of the site – a decision that councilors said they don’t have the authority or expertise to make.

“I’m convinced that the DEP is not going to permit that landfill if it’s not safe,” council Chairman Alan Stormann said this week during a regular council meeting. “If that landfill is leaking, DEP has said they’re not going to issue that permit.”

The DEP commissioner has final approval or denial of the amendment application.

State of Maine

The sale allows Maine to comply with the 1989 legislative mandate that all future landfills be owned by the state to protect the environment and state residents’ interests.

“This isn’t about the economy or the environment,” G-P Controller Rick Douglas said. “This is about the economy and the environment.”

Although some say Maine landfills should stop accepting out-of-state waste to save space and extend the life of existing landfills, out-of-state waste is a necessity. Without it, tipping fees would be too costly for local towns and companies to be able to afford to use the facilities, according to landfill operators.

Casella’s Meagher said this week that all waste coming into landfills in Maine must be tested by a certified laboratory and preapproved. Toxic waste is turned away and must be disposed of out of state. There are no approved toxic waste sites in Maine.

The proposed West Old Town Landfill provides what engineers say is the only logical answer to the state’s trash problem at this time.

Carpenter Ridge – a Lincoln site offered to the state by Lincoln Pulp and Paper which previously was selected for use as a state landfill – would be too costly to construct and get running, with a price tag of $35 million.

Since the west Old Town site already is licensed as a landfill and has been operating since 1996, the cost to expand it is much lower than would be developing a site from scratch.

“The geology of this site is 10 times better than Carpenter Ridge,” said Pete Maher.

DEP officials and engineers say the Old Town landfill sits on an artesian water system, in which water wells up, lessening the chance of groundwater contamination.

Other qualities that make it a good site include its soil composition and the remoteness of its location, Maher said.

DEP geologists installed more test well sites during the last two weeks. Test results from those sites are expected soon.

“[The DEP] is conducting an absolutely thorough and comprehensive review of our application,” Meagher said.

Casella Waste Systems

The state has chosen Vermont-based Casella Waste Systems, the only bidder on the project, as the landfill’s operator. The state will act as the site’s owner, but it is illegal for it to operate the facility.

The purchase and sale agreement for the proposed landfill between G-P and the state was signed Nov. 20, 2003. The final sale awaits the DEP decision on the amendment application, which DEP Commissioner Gallagher has delayed for a few days to allow more time for her to gather information. The decision was expected on Feb. 13.

As part of the deal, Casella will take over all responsibility and liability for the landfill, including design, permitting, construction, operation and monitoring.

“The amendment application would increase the height allowance of the landfill to 390 feet from sea level, which would make it about as tall as the Hampden landfill. The Old Town site, at capacity, would be 180 feet above ground level.

Curtis, G-P’s environmental manager, said there is only one spot off Route 43 where the landfill would be visible to a passer-by, and Casella has offered to plant a stand of tall conifers along the ridge to block that view if residents wish.

The application also would allow in-state waste to be taken at the Old Town site, while out-of-state waste still would be accepted in Hampden. Casella’s Meagher defined out-of-state waste as that which is generated elsewhere and brought into Maine. The only out-of-state waste that will appear at the Old Town landfill is ash from waste burned at in-state incinerators such as PERC, he said.

What next?

As they continue to research their rights, residents are awaiting the DEP’s draft decision on the amendment application before they will be granted another public forum in which to ask questions and express their views.

All requests for a formal public hearing, even those received by the Dec. 11, 2003, deadline, were denied by DEP Commissioner Gallagher, who said it was not a necessary procedure. The DEP holds formal public hearings when credible conflicting information needs to be sorted out to reach a final decision, Cyndi Darling, the DEP’s project manager, explained recently. Gallagher has continued to assure residents her decision is “not a done deal.”

A mandatory five-day public comment period will follow Gallagher’s draft decision, but many residents fear that will be too late.

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