Thursday, February 08, 2007

State: Incinerator is best regulated locally

Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald
February 7, 2007

BIDDEFORD ‹ The state eventually would like to see the Maine Energy Recovery Co. incinerator move out of downtown Biddeford, provided all parties are treated fairly and the impetus comes from the community.

In the meantime, federal and state laws give government agencies limited means for regulating odors and other nuisances created by the plant, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection said Tuesday night.

Commissioner David Littell made the comments while answering a battery of questions about MERC at a special meeting of the Biddeford City Council.

The DEP commissioner and two staffers answered written questions from the council and the public regarding odor control, the extent to which MERC must abide by local regulations and the plant's state license. Their appearance came at a crucial time in the city's relationship with the trash-burning plant, a highly visible and sometimes odoriferous landmark in downtown Biddeford.

The city must decide in the next few months whether to enter into a new long-term contract with the plant's owner, Casella Waste Systems of Vermont.

Some city officials maintain a contract is the best way to protect the city's financial interests and control nuisances. A vocal anti-MERC citizens group, The Working Alliance for Biddeford's Future, favors cutting ties with Casella. The group calls the company an untrustworthy business partner and its incinerator an impediment to downtown revitalization.

Many of the questions directed at the DEP commissioner Tuesday night dealt with the issue of odor and why the DEP does not take a more active role in trying to regulate it. In a statement issued before the meeting, the Working Alliance stated that neither the city of Biddeford nor the DEP has ever fined MERC for an odor violation in nearly 20 years of operation.

In response to a question about the state's approach to regulating odor, Littell said on-the-spot enforcement by local officials was usually more effective than state control. Paula Clark, the director of the DEP's division of solid waste management, added that regulating odor is a subjective process. "If we're dealing with a factory that has frequent, consistent odor events Š we'll take that and make a judgment," she said.

Other questions dealt with state standards for negative pressure requirements that are intended to contain odor within the incinerator building. Littell said the state takes its lead from the federal Environmental Protection Agency but conceded there are regulatory gaps in federal statutes.

If the city developed its own negative pressure rules, the department would stand behind the effort, said Bryce Sproul, the DEP's director of licensing and enforcement.

After the hour-long question period, both supporters and opponents of the MERC contract said they thought the commissioner's basic message was that Biddeford must take primary responsibility for dealing with MERC.

Kyle Noble, a former city councilor and member of the Working Alliance, said he was encouraged by the DEP officials' pledge of support for a local ordinance intended to control odor. He said he would like to see city officials draft a negative pressure ordinance immediately and use it to control the plant. Biddeford city councilor Ken Farley, a member of the contract negotiating team, said he still sees a business relationship with the trash plant as the best way to settle ongoing litigation with MERC and safeguard the city's finances.

"It's not just about the money, but there's a significant amount of money we have to consider," he said.

Staff Writer Seth Harkness can be reached at 282-8225 or at:

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