A Portland-based company vying for the University of Maine’s single-stream recycling contract attached a cover letter with its June bid, saying the university’s request for proposals effectively precluded it from bidding.
The university denies many of Portland-based ecomaine’s claims, saying the company wasn’t awarded the contract due to prohibitive estimated costs associated with trucking recyclables longer distances.
Three companies bid on the contract, which was awarded to Pine Tree Waste Services Inc., a Hampden-based subsidiary of Casella Waste Systems Inc.
The cover letter for ecomaine’s proposal states the company was “disappointed” with the RFP, adding that it “was drafted with such narrow requirements that it precludes a Maine-owned non-profit company from effectively bidding.”
“We were made aware that the RFP was written with a specific contractor in mind,” the letter continues.
Ecomaine is owned and operated by 21 southern Maine municipalities and lists another 22 as “associate members.” It processed more than 35,000 tons of recyclables using a single-stream system in its the 2010-11 fiscal year, which ended June 30.
The company, which handles recycling for the University of Southern Maine, alleges it wasn’t selected because the request for proposals (RFP) was written in such a way that only Casella could successfully bid.
Missi Labbe, the company’s program development manager, said UMaine’s RFP contained two stipulations making ecomaine ineligible for the contract: The company had to have a minimum of five years of experience operating a similar program and operate a single-stream material recovery facility or transfer station within 30 miles of campus.
Ecomaine’s Portland facility is approximately 145 miles from campus, and the only other bidder’s facility is located in Oakland, approximately 65 miles from campus.
When asked of available transfer points within a 30-mile radius of Orono, Labbe could only think of Pine Tree in Hampden.
“There’s only one, and it’s run by the company they currently have,” she said.
‘Just a technicality’
The proposals were due on July 12. At that point, ecomaine’s single-stream program had been in operation for four years and two months, Labbe said.
June Baldacci, UMaine’s director of purchasing and resource efficiency, denies ecomaine’s allegations. She said the RFP was not drafted with Casella’s other university contract in mind.
Casella currently holds a 20-year contract to build and operate an approximately 6-mile landfill gas pipeline joining Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town and the university’s Steam Plant. That contract recently moved forward after nearly a year of stagnation due in part to fluctuation in the market price for landfill gas.
In a written statement, Baldacci addressed the two stipulations.
“The University transports the material to the transfer station, and [30 miles] was considered to be the most practical limit in terms of cost,” she wrote.
As for the five-year requirement, Baldacci wrote that UMaine “wanted to ensure that the contractor had the necessary experience in processing and marketing recyclables and also that there was a sufficient history of regulatory compliance.”
Labbe said she was also disappointed that the university did not contact ecomaine when the RFP was published. She had come to campus in 2007 to discuss the possibility of installing a single-stream system in general terms.
After offering technical knowledge on how a system could be installed at UMaine, she said, she asked the university to let her know if it ever decided to move forward with a system.
Labbe said she heard from a third party that the RFP was published.
“When the time came, no one contacted us,” she said. “You can’t tell me you don’t know who we are.”
Baldacci said UMaine did contact ecomaine when the RFP was published. A list of six firms contacted includes ecomaine, with a handwritten note that the firm was notified on June 20.
Labbe said she called the university to ask about the RFP and spoke with a young woman whose name she cannot recall now.
“They didn’t really respond with any particulars,” she said. “They simply stated, ‘Well, you know it’s just a technicality.’
“I was stunned,” Labbe continued.
Baldacci denied the correspondence.
“She did not call with any questions about the RFP,” Baldacci said Tuesday, adding that Casella was awarded the contract over ecomaine because “we wanted to make sure we selected the best option.”
Labbe said the “technicality” described by the young woman was the publishing of the RFP, as the university had already decided to award the contract to Casella.
“Nobody in this office would have said this was just a formality,” Baldacci said. “That’s just absolutely incorrect.”
A problem of geography
Baldacci said no proposals were rejected. Although ecomaine did not meet those two stipulations, the proposal was reviewed with the same scrutiny given to bids from Casella and Maine Resource Recovery Association. She also said the university would have been willing to waive compliance with the two stipulations if a proposal was attractive enough.
MRRA was not awarded the contract due to the company’s requirement that all recyclables be housed in one on-campus container for the company’s trucks to retrieve.
Baldacci said the geographic constraints of campus made installing a container difficult and the machinery on campus available for use in the project would not be able to “upload” materials, meaning it could not lift a container of recyclables to be dumped into a truck.
Currently, Casella picks up materials from multiple zero-sort dumpsters on campus, imitating the university’s trash removal process.
Ecomaine’s proposal said the university would be responsible for transporting the recyclables to its Portland facility or to a hauler within the 30-mile radius.
Baldacci said the university ran into the same uploading problem in that scenario, as trucks carrying recyclables would not be able to lift their loads and transfer them to trucks headed to Portland.
Another issue with ecomaine’s proposal, according to Baldacci, is that “ecomaine proposed variable price options tied to commodity resale markets.” Because those markets can fluctuate, “the actual costs to the university could not be determined and would vary,” she wrote.
Casella’s proposal contained “a fixed cost per ton of $20 to process the materials,” Baldacci continued. “A conservative estimate to transport the materials to Portland was well in excess of $20 per ton.”
Labbe said awarding the contract to Casella exacerbates the environmental issues. Instead of the university driving to Portland, she said, it drives to Hampden, and Casella trucks take materials to Massachusetts to be processed.
“How is that more cost-effective?” she asked. “The material they’re sending out is being trucked right by here.”
‘We were upset’
Despite Labbe’s misgivings, she did not initially speak out about the RFP.
A copy of ecomaine’s cover letter was sent anonymously to Paul Schroeder, an Orono resident who has been a vocal opponent of Juniper Ridge and who is a member of the Trash Tracking Network, set up to compile documents about the landfill, which is operated by Casella. He provided the letter to The Maine Campus.
Labbe suspects someone from the university sent the letter to Schroeder; Baldacci suspects someone from ecomaine sent the letter.
Norridgewock-based Waste Management, Hermon-based BBI Waste Industries and the city of Old Town were also contacted when the RFP was published, but did not submit bids.
According to Baldacci, Old Town had been informed because officials there wanted to be kept in the loop about waste management on campus. Requests for comment from Waste Management and BBI Waste Industries were not returned by press time.
“I don’t feel the towns served by ecomaine would be served well for me to go to battle with the college,” Labbe said. “In all fairness to them, we submitted our proposal, and they reviewed it.
“Normally we wouldn’t call someone out like that. We were upset,” she continued, adding that she did not want her comments to appear as denigrating the university.
The contract awarded to Casella is slated for one year with the possibility for three one-year renewals, meaning another RFP for single-stream recycling might not be published until 2015. The renewals would take place in August of each year.
“Hopefully the next go-round they’ll see the benefit of keeping it local,” Labbe said, expressing desire to continue a working relationship with the university.