Politics of Solid Waste
(from Maine Townsman, June 2000)
by Michael L. Starn, Editor
What do a proposed regional landfill in Aroostook County, a group of condo owners in Brunswick wanting trash pickup, a pay-per-bag proposal in Pittsfield, and a municipal landfill expansion in Augusta have in common?
The obvious answer is solid waste, but it’s not the only answer. Money, of course, is in the picture. Politics are involved. And, the issue of tax fairness comes up in at least two of these situations. A not so obvious common element is public education, mostly the lack of it. For these Maine communities, the cost, the politics, the emotions surrounding solid waste have made it a difficult issue for local officials to deal with.
Nine years ago, the TOWNSMAN featured an article on NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) in an issue devoted primarily to solid waste topics. At the time, several Maine communities were being evaluated for siting a low level radioactive waste facility and for the location of a state-owned special waste landfill. Earlier, in the mid to late 1980’s, there had been talk of a high level radioactive waste site in the Northeast. These events combined to make solid waste a hot political issue in Maine.
So what happened? Neither the high level or low level radioactive waste site ever materialized, at least not in Maine (or the Northeast for that matter). The state’s two commercial special waste sites expanded and the proposal to develop a state-owned site was put on hold. A state-owned special waste landfill continues to be a topic of discussion today.
These events, however, did create turmoil and distrust – attitudes which have carried over to present day. Any waste management issue today receives intense public scrutiny (I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but sometimes even good ideas never see the light of day). Also, public attitudes toward waste management issues have become generalized, meaning that the public does not clearly distinguish between the different types of waste (i.e., hazardous, special and municipal). Some wastes, such as incinerator ash and wastewater sludge, while not designated as hazardous by environmental officials have been categorized as such in the public’s mind.
This historical footnote on waste management events in Maine sets the stage for explaining the events that are now occurring in southern Aroostook County, Brunswick, Pittsfield and Augusta.
Southern Aroostook Says "No" to Regional Landfill
The latest vote was overwhelming. Residents in the town of Houlton, the largest member of the Southern Aroostook Solid Waste Disposal District (SASWDD) voted 1,130-204 on March 7 against a regional landfill. The referendum question was advisory only, but for the time being it appears to have halted any attempt to build a regional landfill in Hammond Plantation (just north of Houlton) on 135 acres of land owned by the district. The SASWDD is comprised of Houlton, Hodgdon, Linneus, Ludlow, Danforth, Smyrna, and Cary Plantation.
Events leading up to the March 7th vote date back to the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when Houlton and some of its neighboring municipalities began to explore their solid waste options. By 1993, it was determined that a regional landfill was the most viable option.
The communities formed a solid waste district (the SASWDD) and the district purchased the Hammond land. In 1994, a district-wide vote was held on using 8-acres of the site for a district-owned and operated landfill. Bonding of $3.2 million would have been needed to complete the project. Voters in the district’s member municipalities turned down the bond issue by a 3-1 margin.
The dormant project was resurrected by the SASWDD board of directors in 1998 when they decided to seek private funding for the project and Eirco Environmental of New Hampshire was selected. The new approach was to have a landfill that was municipally-owned, but privately built and operated.
Two options were presented by the company. One was to have the company develop a 40-acre landfill that would take in more than 325 tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) a day. The other was to have the landfill used for incinerator ash, and only 13 acres would be developed.
Under both options the district’s member communities would get free trash disposal. Under the 40-acre landfill option, the district would be paid $1 per ton for the outside MSW and under the 13-acre option the payment would be $2 per ton of ash.
In late 1999, certain assets of Eirco, including the option to take over the SASWDD landfill project, were bought by Casella Waste Systems of Vermont, one of the country’s largest waste management companies. Casella has a strong foothold in Maine’s solid waste business owning Sawyer Environmental Services and KTI (parent company of Maine Energy and PERC).
By a 6-4 weighted vote, the board of directors of the SASWDD voted in early February to approve a landfill operation-construction outline with its partner (Eirco) in the regional landfill project. That outline was to form the basis of a contract between the district and the company.
Houlton is the largest community in the district. The 7-member district has weighted voting. Houlton has four of those votes. Houlton’s member on the district’s board of directors, Brian Stewart, was the lone vote against the landfill project, but his vote counted as four votes.
The preceding events set the stage for the March 7th referendum vote. Casella/Eirco was unwilling to make the financial investment, if the project did not have public support. Even though the district’s board of directors approved the project outline, Houlton’s support was going to be critical to moving it forward.
Soon after the Houlton referendum, the SASWDD directors met and decided to put on hold any plan to develop the Hammond site.
A supporter of the regional landfill idea was Paul Romanelli, chairman of the Houlton Town Council.
"I think we lost an opportunity … but who knows?" says Romanelli.
Romanelli believes the landfill idea was defeated because of a weak public information effort by the supporters of it. "Education of people is so important," he says.
He contends that in the beginning there was not a general outcry of the citizenry against the project.
Opposition to the plan came swiftly and grew steadily, as evidenced by the referendum outcome. Romanelli says it started with people who had a "vested interest" in the site.
They mounted an aggressive media campaign to defeat the project. They ran full page ads in the local newspaper and sent many "letters to the editor".
Another determining factor in the outcome of the referendum was that three of Houlton’s town councilors opposed the project, according to Romanelli.
The combination of these things, says Romanelli, was "a prescription for defeat".
Romanelli contends that the battle was essentially lost in 1994 when the district voters decided against the $3.2 bond issue for a municipally-owned and operated district. By replacing the public financing with private financing, the SASWDD board of directors may have thought they could change people’s attitude toward the project, but it created a new problem. Many people, says Romanelli, opposed the latest plan because it was viewed as a commercial "garbage giant" having free reign here.
Romanelli says he supports the regional landfill idea because "it is important for a municipality to control its solid waste." Today, Houlton uses a transfer station operated by Sawyer Environmental (a Casella company), and sends its waste to Tri-Community Landfill in Fort Fairfield. That contract is due to expire in 2002.
Most of the other communities in the SASWDD use the Houlton transfer station. The town of Danforth has its own transfer station and sends its trash to a landfill in Canada.
Perhaps the timing wasn’t right for a regional landfill in Southern Aroostook County. Maybe it will never be the right time. Solid waste decisions, nevertheless, have a way of coming back. The City of Augusta is an example of how this can happen.
Landfill Expansion Okayed in Augusta
A similar controversy to that surrounding the Southern Aroostook regional landfill issue surfaced in Augusta in the early 1990’s.
Hatch Hill is a regional landfill located in Augusta. It is owned and operated by the City of Augusta. Eight surrounding communities contract with Augusta for disposal of their solid waste. The triple lined landfill – the only one of its type in the state – handles 30 to 35 thousand tons of trash a year. The city has a recycling rate that is over 40% of the waste generated.
Hatch Hill began as a typical municipal dump in the 1950’s. It was developed into a secure, regional landfill in the early 1980’s.
During the mid and late 1980’s, a solid waste group representing the city and the landfill’s contracting communities explored various options for managing solid waste in the Capital City region. A regional waste-to-energy plant was seriously contemplated, but several factors contributed to the project’s demise.
In 1991, a small expansion of Hatch Hill was proposed by city officials. The proposal ran into trouble from the outset.
First, there was trouble over where to expand and how big an expansion. Staff settled on a small expansion (6-7 acres) in an area that was felt to be the most environmentally acceptable to the DEP.
A second problem was financing. The small expansion (known as Expansion II) was going to be expensive and wasn’t going to last that long (5 years). Making matters worse, the expansion was coming in the depths of the last recession. To make financing more palatable, city staff floated a proposal to accept incinerator ash in exchange for regular trash (MSW). The approach would have doubled the expected life of the landfill expansion.
It was not to be. Opposition to the idea was led by a member of the Augusta City Council who spearheaded a citizen’s group that eventually got the issues before the voters in a referendum. The referendum question, which passed by a substantial margin, put severe limitations on what the city could do to fix its solid waste problem. The citizen group’s primary objective, which was achieved, was to make sure that the Hatch Hill landfill did not trade "trash for ash".
Rejection of the "trash for ash" idea did not stop the landfill expansion, however. The expansion went ahead (actually it was enlarged to 11 acres) and was completed in 1992.
The lessons learned by city officials were: (1) to provide more public education and (2) to be proactive in dealing with the emotion that comes with solid waste issues.
Being a relatively small expansion, city officials knew that it was only a temporary solution to the region’s solid waste needs. So, in 1995, a solid waste management committee was formed to explore long-term solid waste options for Augusta and the contracting communities.
The committee was made up of two city councilors, two to five citizen representatives, the public works director and the solid waste director. Augusta’s Solid Waste Director Lesley Jones, who had gone through the Expansion II controversy, says the committee studied all the options. "Upfront citizen education and involvement was important. We were committed to making it a public process."
And, it worked. After studying all the solid waste options – transfer station, waste-to-energy, new landfill, etc. – the committee decided on a large expansion of the existing landfill.
Expansion III is a $9.7 million, 20-acre, five cell expansion designed to add 20 years to the landfill’s life.
A Preliminary Option Study Report, prepared by Woodard & Curran, was presented to and accepted by the city council in 1996. The council authorized the solid waste management committee to proceed with the development of a Preliminary Information Report (PIR) on the landfill expansion to be submitted to DEP. After DEP’s approval of the PIR in the spring of 1997, the solid waste committee put out requests for proposals to develop preliminary design plans and the DEP application. The city council voted to retain the services of Dames and Moore consulting engineers in the late fall of 1997. The $9.7 million bond issue was put before Augusta voters in November, 1998, and passed by a 4-1 margin. A number of public informational meetings were held as the project was developing. There was virtually no public opposition to the landfill expansion.
Lesley Jones attributes the success of the third expansion to the strong leadership of and influential citizens on the solid waste committee and to the public information efforts of the committee and public works department.
A quarterly newsletter put out by the public works department regularly featured articles on the expansion.
A small, but noteworthy, public education tool that the committee used was to target potential opposition to the expansion and make sure they were kept well-informed. That strategy also appears to have worked.
Brunswick Condo Owners Get Trash Pickup
Any municipal official who has had to tell residents on private roads that the town will no longer plow or maintain those roads has probably heard the "tax fairness" argument.
It goes like this, "I pay (property) taxes too, so why don’t I receive X, Y or Z municipal service?"
On the request to plow private roads the answer is pretty straightforward, the Maine Supreme Court has ruled that a municipality cannot spend public funds for a private purpose. Therefore, the town can’t legally do it.
Like other municipalities, the Town of Brunswick has policy language in its solid waste ordinance that prohibits its public works trucks from going onto private roads. The town’s curbside pickup policy does allow residential property owners on private roads to bring their trash to the nearest public way for municipal pickup.
Condo owners in Brunswick think that policy is unfair. They say that they pay taxes, like other residential property owners, and that the town should pick up their trash as well. The problem is that these condo owners live on private roads.
In April, owners in four condominium developments in town hired an attorney. Their case was made public and they asked the town council to consider changing its trash pickup policy. In Brunswick, curbside service is provided to homes and apartment buildings on public ways and to mobile home parks.
It was the mobile home park pickup that gave credence to the "unfairness" argument. In the early 1970’s the Brunswick Town Council voted to allow mobile home parks to receive municipal trash pickup services. They got around the issue of keeping municipal public works vehicles off private roads by contracting out the service and having the town pick up the tab.
On June 5, the condo owners presented their case to the Brunswick Town Council. Their attorney, Michael Feldman told the council that all his clients wanted was to be treated like everyone else. The council agreed with their arguments and voted to spend an extra $15,000 a year to provide trash pickup for condominiums and other housing developments on private roads.
"We think this is a fairness issue," said Town Manager Don Gerrish. When interviewed by the TOWNSMAN, Gerrish expressed some concern about the precedent setting aspect of this decision. The town has 80 private roads. Will these homeowners also demand municipally-paid trash collection? And, what about businesses? They pay taxes too. Will they also feel unfairly treated?
For now, 12 condominium sites, with a total of 450 units, will receive municipal (or municipally-paid for) trash pickup services beginning September 1, 2000.
Strike One on Pay-Per-Bag Idea In Pittsfield
About 60 Maine communities use it and apparently think it works. The State Planning Office’s Waste Management & Recycling Program strongly endorses the approach. So, why did Pittsfield residents at a public hearing on May 2 so soundly trounce the idea of Pittsfield Town Manager Dwight Dogherty and Recycling Coordinator Mathys J. Van Dam to move toward a pay-per-bag system for solid waste collection and disposal?
"We were trying to make solid waste disposal fair," he says. Bags were to have been sold to residents by the town and an exclusive contract would have been awarded to a private hauler to pick up residential trash. Scales were to have been installed at the transfer station for individuals and businesses who brought trash there.
Pittsfield’s solid waste budget is $314,000. The town operates a transfer station. Private haulers, businesses and residents bring their trash to the station. Roughly 2,900 tons of trash are disposed of each year. About 900 tons are recycled.
Town Manager Dogherty identifies a number of contributing factors. One reason, says Dogherty, was that going to the transfer station is an important social event for the residents who take their trash there. "They wanted to be able to continue doing that," he says. "It wasn’t so much a political issue as it was a social one."
Another contributing factor to the residents’ negative reaction toward the idea, according to Dogherty, was that private haulers started spreading false rumors about the plan soon after it was proposed.
Dogherty was on vacation at the time of the public hearing, but he says that from newspaper accounts of the event, he believes a lot of misinformation was given out at that hearing.
He now believes it is time to step back, even though he still believes in the approach. "I think we’re on the right track," he says. "All those towns that have converted (to pay-per-bag systems) can’t be wrong."
Before the issue is revived, Dogherty says that town officials will need to do a better job of educating people about the plan.
"We (staff and the town council) will be discussing what to do next", Dogherty says. More education on recycling is needed and town officials also need to look at the possibility of recycling more items, he says. Additionally, he believes that the town’s solid waste ordinance must be strengthened, putting more teeth into the recycling requirement.
"Certainly, the pay-per-bag idea has a lot of merit," says the Pittsfield town manager. "It would take two mills off the tax rate."
Other positive effects, according to Dogherty, would be an increase in the town’s recycling rate and the elimination of any mixing of trash that might be occurring when private trash collectors cross municipal borders (Pittsfield currently allows multi-town private haulers to dispose of trash collected from Pittsfield residents and businesses for free at the transfer station).