OLD TOWN, Maine — The city, in partnership with Casella Waste Management and the University of Maine, has requested $3 million in federal stimulus funding to construct a 6-mile gas pipeline connecting the Juniper Ridge Landfill, which Casella operates for the state of Maine, with the steam plant at UMaine, which supplies heat to much of the Orono campus.

The new pipeline and some upgrades to the steam plant would enable the facility to switch from burning natural gas to purchasing and burning landfill gas, resulting in a significant reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, according to the application.

The grant application, filed Dec. 13, also calls for a second phase of the project: the construction of an electricity-generating facility on Penny Road in Old Town connected to the landfill by a second pipeline. The application implies Old Town’s participation in the Maine Green Energy Alliance, a Casella-owned entity still in the planning stages that would generate electricity and sell it directly to participating municipalities and other purchasers.

Other municipalities named in the alliance project include Biddeford, Saco and Westbrook, all communities that host Casella facilities. Participating communities would receive funds to help low-income residents weatherize and make other energy-saving improvements to their homes, according to the application.

“The city is on board with helping get this done,” Old Town City Manager Peggy Daigle said Monday. Juniper Ridge is producing landfill gas and burning it on-site, she noted, although significant odor problems persist. “If Casella can find a way to use this gas safely and environmentally, we’d be crazy not to try to work it out.”

But some Old Town residents question the project on environmental grounds, as well as the use of federal tax dollars to support Casella’s profits.

Mary Dolan, a scientist by training, said there is neither a sound business model for such a landfill gas-to-energy project nor enough research to suggest it is safe to burn landfill gas.

“Is this actually environmentally sound, or is it more polluting?” she asked Monday. “I think there is a problem in Casella claiming that this is a renewable, green-energy resource.”

Dolan also expressed concern that the project could motivate Casella to bring “even more trash” to Juniper Ridge — a contentious issue for many area residents who feel the profit-making facility accepts too much refuse that originates from out of state.

Pine Tree Landfill in Hampden, which is owned and operated by Casella, launched the state’s first gas-to-energy plant in early 2008, and despite some growing pains, the project has been a success, according to landfill and Hampden officials. Initial estimates suggest that the decomposing waste will produce enough methane gas to power up to 3,000 homes for 15 years or more.

The $10 million facility is an elaborate network of wells and pipes that connects the interior of the landfill to an extraction plant. Methane gas produced by decomposing waste is transferred to the extraction plant, where it is cleaned and then used to power generators that make electricity.

The gas-to-energy facility will keep the Pine Tree Landfill and its owners active in Hampden for many years to come.

Last year, the Crossroads Landfill in Norridgewock unveiled a similar gas-to-energy plant.

Casella and the State Planning Office recently applied for a major expansion of the licensed capacity at Juniper Ridge — from 10 million cubic yards to 30 million cubic yards — but the preliminary application was turned down by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection for failing to demonstrate the public good that would be served by such an expansion.

Don Meagher, manager of planning and development for Casella, said the company’s latest proposals are viable regardless of whether the expansion of Juniper Ridge is ultimately approved. Although less than 30 percent of the landfill’s capacity is currently filled, he said, there already is enough waste degrading there to generate more than 20 years’ worth of fuel for the University of Maine and a new generating plant.

At a meeting of the Old Town City Council last week, Old Town resident and landfill critic Ed Spencer protested the city’s participation in the grant application and pressured Daigle to involve the public directly in approving the projects if the federal funds are awarded.

Daigle said Monday that it is too early in the evolving process to open the “touchy” issue to public controversy. She said the city is serving as a “conduit” in the grant application process and is not spearheading the project.

“We’re trying to be very careful about how we do this,” she said.

Asked on Monday for comment, the University on Maine issued a statement saying it was in preliminary discussions with the city of Old Town and Casella regarding the use of landfill gas at the steam plant. “Potentially, landfill gas delivered by pipeline to the UMaine campus would replace most of the fossil fuels currently burned in steam boilers,” the statement said. “It also could save the university millions of dollars in energy costs over a 20-year period.”

BDN staff writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.

Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at mhaskell@bangordailynews.com.