The state’s chief environmental protection officer did little at a public meeting on Wednesday night to allay escalating concerns surrounding the state-owned Juniper Ridge landfill, which straddles the Old Town-Alton town line.
Maine Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Patricia Aho was on hand at the request of the Juniper Ridge Landfill Advisory Committee to give an overview of the DEP’s public benefit determination, a decision made by the department in January that approved a partial expansion of the landfill, operated by Vermont-based Casella Waste Systems Inc.
She also came to Old Town in order to address public and municipal concerns surrounding the bill, L.D. 1911, a recently proposed piece of legislation that proposed passing ownership of the state-owned landfill to Casella.
Unfortunately for the 20 or so residents who chose to attend the meeting, Aho declined to answer any specific questions regarding the public benefit determination, citing a pending appeal on the issue that goes before the Board of Environmental Protection on May 3.
“I cannot speak to the nature of those questions at this time, due to the pending appeals that currently stand before the state,” Aho said.
To this, Aho was accused by residents of “front-loading” her appearance before the committee. Most in attendance deemed the meeting a disappointment by claiming the information Aho shared was nothing new.
“She denied my questions, she denied the facts, and she chose to answer others’ questions and not my own,” said Paul McCarrier, of Stockton Springs, as he stood before committee members pleading with them to take further action in the matter. “She lied to you people and she lied to this entire room.”
But for Aho, who made her first appearance before the committee since she took her current post as the DEP commissioner in Feb. 2011, the meeting was an opportunity for her to get caught up on the public sentiment surrounding the landfill debate.
“These meetings are about the continuing efforts that need to be made to ensure Maine’s solid waste management policies are consistent,” Aho said early on in the meeting. “And it is important to maintain a dialogue aimed at addressing these issues and making sure that if there is a change in ownership, all the necessary steps will be taken and all the reviews will be made.”
Advisory committee member Ted Shina said an invitation was extended to Aho with the hope that a new conduit would open for addressing his committee’s grievances with the state.
The Juniper Landfill Advisory Committee was established in 2004 by the state legislature to act as a liaison between the public and the parties involved with the facility’s operation, but its members have repeatedly cited how powerless and ineffectual it is in dealing with both Casella and the state.
Wednesday’s meeting was largely a recap of some of the broader issues confronting the landfill’s opponents and what they contend is the state’s inability to properly address them.
On April 9, both the house and the senate postponed a vote on L.D. 1911, sponsored by Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco.
The bill was tabled after lawmakers disagreed over the finer points of the plan. Some legislators claimed there simply was not enough time left in the legislative session, which adjourns on April 18, to work out the complexities of such a hotly contested issue. Rep. Bob Duchesne, D-Hudson, told the Bangor Daily News earlier this week that the bill is “dead.”
The legislation would have authorized the executive branch to negotiate the terms of a transfer in ownership in addition to terminating the operational agreement between Casella and the state, L.D. 1911 will now have to be redrafted and resubmitted during the next legislative session.
But perhaps more contentious than the possibility of privatizing the Juniper Ridge Landfill, which opponents say would likely lessen the community’s ability to put pressure on its operations, was the DEP’s approval of a 9.35 million cubic yard expansion at the facility.
Opponents have repeatedly asked both the State Planning Office and the DEP to conduct reviews of Casella’s operations, but in recent weeks they have lobbied for the involvement of a third party.
A letter was drafted and sent to the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, which is currently in the process of gathering information on whether or not to proceed by sending its findings to the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.
Residents at Wednesday’s meeting asked Aho questions that ranged from water pollution and odor issues to just how the DEP monitors the kind of waste that enters Maine from outside the state.
By law, Juniper Ridge’s obligation is to process construction and demolition debris generated only in Maine.
However, the statutory language for defining out-of-state waste remains nonexistent. This has allowed Casella to process waste generated out-of-state in Maine, thereby turning it into in-state waste.
Committee members and members of the public are convinced that Juniper Ridge is processing more out-of-state waste than anything else.
Aho greeted these concerns by acknowledging that a clearer definition of out-of-state waste needs to be established. Though she didn’t provide specifics on the DEP’s reasoning in its decision to approve an expansion at the landfill, she promised members of the community more information on the issue in the future and a continued effort to address their concerns.
Members of the advisory committee also said on Wednesday that they plan to make every effort possible to deter the state from transferring ownership to Casella when they go before the Government Oversight Committee on May 25.
However, Committee Chairman Peter Dufour said that similar efforts in the past to sway decisions related to the landfill have failed.
“We have no status in Augusta, we have little information and we have no input,” Dufour said. “Sometimes we have to ask the question, ‘Should there even be a committee?’”
For now, it remains unclear how the state’s contract would be affected with Casella if it were to privatize the landfill, at least as far as the revenues collected by the municipalities as a result of the state’s involvement with the landfill are concerned.
“There are many, many questions that still need to be answered,” Dufour said, reassuring the attendants at Wednesday’s meeting. “We’re gathering all the necessary information so we can take a united front to Augusta in May.”