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Another View: Closing Maine waste ‘loophole’ would have unintended results

Recently, this paper (“Our View: Out-of-state waste has no place in Maine landfills,” Oct. 7) and activist groups have alarmed readers about an alleged loophole in Maine rules that allows what they consider out-of-state waste to be “dumped” in Maine. They claim that simply closing this loophole would improve Maine’s solid waste system.

If only it were that simple.

We at Casella Waste Systems have operated the state-owned landfill in Old Town, known as Juniper Ridge, since 2004, although our roots in Maine and our involvement in managing Maine’s solid waste run much deeper than that. We collect, transfer, recycle and process nearly half of the waste generated in Maine. We work with wastewater treatment programs in hundreds of towns, putting their leftover organic material to a higher and better use by generating compost. We’ve made significant investments to ensure the state-owned landfill is operated safely and efficiently, and to promote resource and energy recovery from the waste we manage.

If the events of the last eight months have taught us anything, it’s that reaction in one policy area can have unintended consequences in another. We must be thoughtful and flexible in responding to challenges. That is especially true for solid waste management and recycling.

Decades ago, the Maine Legislature dictated the direction of solid waste management, placing a moratorium on development of new commercial landfills and seeking a state-owned landfill. This policy attempted to establish a prohibition on the importation of out-of-state waste for landfilling, though that continues to happen at any commercial landfill that existed at that time. To be clear, the state-owned landfill cannot and does not accept out-of-state waste.

Maine is unique in the number and volume of waste incinerators, processing a larger percentage of trash than most other states.  Some incinerators process out-of-state trash during slow periods to achieve maximum efficiency. They also generate ash as a “residual” to their process. Thus, residuals generated from Maine processing facilities, incinerators and recyclers – regardless of the place of origin of the original waste – become Maine waste by rule and law.

This residual material from incinerators, processors and recyclers is not “dumped” at the state-owned landfill. It’s put to higher and better use for two important environmental and engineering purposes.

First, at the end of every day, the residue is used to cover the active surface of the landfill. This is required by rule and is done to reduce odors and to keep scavengers away. The daily cover accounts for approximately 20 percent of the total volume at the landfill, consistent with standard operating practices. Without beneficially reusing residue as daily cover, virgin soil material would need to be mined and used as cover instead.

Second, the residual bulky material and ash are mixed with waste from wastewater treatment plants. This bulky material and ash are essential to support the waste in order to promote stability. Without residuals from processing facilities, the municipal sewer districts would need to find other disposal sites for their waste materials, at higher costs to municipalities.

There is another and more dire consequence from reversal of this policy. If these residuals can’t be used at the state-owned landfill, the future financial viability of the processing facilities – critical players in our environmental management infrastructure – would be thrown into disarray, putting hundreds of people out of work and costing Maine millions of dollars.

Ironically, “closing the loophole” in the name of environmental conservation would have a negative impact on the environment – more waste would be trucked further distances, more natural resources would be used in landfill operation and less recyclables would be put to higher and better uses.

This issue was recently debated before the Legislature, and changes acceptable to our representatives and the Department of Environmental Protection were signed into law in June. This was a long process that the activists are attempting to circumvent with a petition to the Board of Environmental Protection. Changing regulations frequently and without factual basis negates consistency and reliability for businesses and municipalities.

Solid waste management is a complicated, interdependent system. The state-owned landfill is one small part of that network.  “Closing loopholes” may sound like a good idea, but the unintended consequences in this case are real, and would negatively affect nearly everyone in Maine.


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