Portland (Maine) Press Herald (pg. A1), October 3, 2006


The Agreement Would Tighten Environmental Controls But Reduce The Company's Tax Bills.

By Kevin Wack Staff Writer

After 2 1/2 years of negotiations, the city announced Monday the tentative terms of an agreement to resolve all of its disputes with the owner of the trash-burning plant downtown.

The deal still is subject to approval by the City Council, which plans to give the public three chances to discuss the matter later this month.

But Monday's announcement marked a milestone in the long-running saga about the widely unpopular Maine Energy Recovery Co.

Under the proposed deal, the city would see a reduction in tax revenue from MERC and could end up paying more to have its own trash collected.

But Mayor Wallace Nutting said the agreement also includes tighter environmental rules, curbside pickup of recyclable materials and a $150,000 contribution by the trash plant's owner toward the redevelopment of Biddeford's downtown mill buildings.

"There will be some people who will criticize it and say we should have come up with more," Nutting said. "I think we've come up with a pretty good agreement."

Ken Robbins, MERC's general manager, concurred. "I think it's a good agreement for both sides," he said.

Mike Eon, president of a local group that has sought the incinerator's shutdown, reserved judgment because he hadn't seen the agreement. He expressed hope that it contains tougher provisions on environmental testing and odor control.

"The main concern from the get-go has been to try to make sure it's safe and try to eliminate the nuisance as much as possible," Eon said.

The proposed agreement includes two separate contracts that total 80 pages. The terms are complex; they would resolve old lawsuits, settle a dispute about tax abatements and end a disagreement about the plant's assessed value.

The proposal includes a city option to enter a five-year, 10-year, 15-year or 20-year contract to have its trash taken to MERC.

If the city agrees to a 20-year contract, it would pay $43.51 for each ton of trash collected next year. That's in the same ballpark as the city's current fee, according to the mayor. The fee would escalate until it reached $85.36 per ton in 2026.

However, if the city decides it wants only a five-year contract, the fee would start at $49.45 per ton next year and gradually increase to $57.86 in 2011.

The agreement also sets the trash incinerator's assessed value at $51.5 million, or about 70 percent of its current level. Consequently, if the local tax rate stays constant, MERC's annual tax bill of around $1.3 million would drop.

According to the mayor, other terms of the proposed agreement include:

A requirement that Maine Energy pay for two environmental tests over the next two years at times chosen by the city.

A change in the existing system for reporting odor complaints that would send phone calls to the Biddeford Police Department.

A $150,000 contribution from Maine Energy into a new fund -- created by the Biddeford Saco Area Economic Development Corp. -- that would assist small start-up firms in the downtown mill district.

A curbside recycling program that would give homeowners credits -- redeemable at local retailers -- based on the volume of goods they recycle. The mayor believes the program will lead to more recycling, but it's unclear when curbside pickup might begin, because a regional site where the recyclable materials would be sorted has yet to be built.

The negotiations between the city of Biddeford and Casella Waste Systems, which owns the trash-to-energy plant, began in early 2004. Until last year, the talks also included the neighboring city of Saco, which recently has been looking for another place to dispose of its trash.

Initially, the negotiations contemplated the eventual shutdown of the MERC plant, but voters in both Biddeford and Saco rejected a $20 million buyout proposal last November.

The trash plant has been disparaged often since it opened in 1987, with many critics saying that it should not be in such a densely populated area.

But city officials say they have no ability to shut down MERC unilaterally. The mayor pointed out in a news release Monday that the plant is a privately owned business regulated by the state and federal governments.

"Trash must go somewhere," the statement read.

Staff Writer Kevin Wack can be contacted at 282-8226 or at: kwack@pressherald.com

Copyright (c) 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.