You might think that putting a garbage incinerator in the middle of the downtown district of a quaint New England town is not the best idea. Unfortunately, like deciding to leave the rain-fly off your tent because it’s hotter than Hades and you’ve been stuck in the car all day, circumstances occasionally disarm common sense.
In the early 1980s, the town of Biddeford, Maine, was staring down a garbage dilemma: local landfills were going to have to close because it was too expensive to upgrade them to the new Federal RCRA standards. What to do with the garbage?
Waste-to-Energy was a cutting-edge technology that was gaining popularity at the time. Nearly 15% of all American MSW was being combusted by 1990. Not only did you reduce the volume of the garbage, but you produced electricity from the process. Biddeford thought it was a good solution to their garbage problem.
Proposals were requested and in 1983, a newly formed company, Kuhr Technologies, Inc (KTI), was contracted to build what would become the Maine Energy Recovery Co. (MERC). A run-down mill complex in downtown Biddeford was chosen as the best site for the incinerator. Other towns were trying to land the incinerator and Biddeford was desperate to attract the jobs and waste disposal solution. Siting the plant was expedited.
Because of a design flaw (thank you General Electric), the incinerator had a tendency to spit out large clouds of black smoke. These clouds led to the facility catching a million dollar fine in the first few years of its operation. KTI was in financial trouble. A new deal was arranged with Biddeford that increased the amount of garbage the facility would accept from 80,000 tons to 285,000 tons per year to try to balance the books. The effort didn’t work too well and a Vermont company, Casella Waste Systems, acquired KTI in 1999.
Needless to say, the incinerator cast a bit of a pall over downtown Biddeford. The New England charm of the little mill town was hard to appreciate amidst the funky smell of burnt garbage. Throughout the ’90s and the first decade of the new millennium, the town, without any luck, tried to buy the incinerator out so they could shut it down .
And then in 2012, the City of Biddeford announced that they had finally reached an agreement with Casella to buy the MERC facility.
The incinerator cost $122 million to build and fix-up over the years. It was sold to the town of Biddeford for $6.5 million. Casella has agreed to do the cleanup and abatement. In addition, Casella has put up $500,000 to buy recycling bins for a curbside collection program that has just started in Biddeford. With the closure of the MERC incinerator, Casella will also have to figure out somewhere else to take all the garbage from the contracts that had been fulfilled by MERC.
So, as the residents of Biddeford rejoice, my question is: why would Casella sell a $122 million dollar plant for $6.5 million, and commit to clean-up costs, and shell out $500,000 for recycling toters, and take the hit of disposing of all the waste elsewhere?