The Coastal Resources of Maine facility in Hampden is pictured in this 2019 file photo. Credit: Sam Schipani / BDN

In 2010, a group of more than 100 Maine communities in eastern, northern, central and midcoast Maine decided to design the ideal system for disposing of all their residents’ trash.

This nonprofit, called the Municipal Review Committee, wanted to rely less on burning the trash at a local incinerator and more on recycling. Though time was on the group’s side, its plans ultimately fell apart.

Here’s what happened.

The origins of the Municipal Review Committee

The Municipal Review Committee formed in 1991 to help a group of municipalities restructure their agreements with an incinerator in Orrington called the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company, said Karen Fussell, the organization’s president.

PERC, which had officially started up in 1988, hadn’t performed as well as expected and might have closed if the communities hadn’t agreed to buy about 25 percent of the company’s holdings and sign a 30-year waste management agreement, said Fussell who is also the finance director for the city of Brewer.

The incineration facility was also boosted by a guaranteed, higher-than-market rate for the electricity it produced through the burning of its trash, under a federally sponsored power purchase agreement.

That special power agreement was set to expire in 2018, the same year as the Municipal Review Committee’s contract with PERC, however. Without the two agreements, the communities became concerned about the incinerator’s financial stability and about whether tipping fees — the amount group members paid PERC to handle their waste — would go up, she said.

“We were thinking big. We had lots of time to plan,” Fussell said.

So the group put out a request for ideas for technology or facilities that could work with PERC itself or next to it — anything that could keep down the cost of managing the communities’ solid waste, while meeting state waste priorities, Fussell said.

“We were wide open. We wanted people to come to us with new ideas, different technologies, ways to work with what we had, retrofitted or expansion, or new ideas,” she said. “We just threw it out there.”

What is Fiberight?

In Maine, some disposal options are considered less desirable than others, with landfilling being considered the least environmentally friendly route and incineration only slightly better.

That’s why the Municipal Review Committee turned to a technology that had never been used before in the country to try to be less wasteful.

Fiberight was a novelty on paper.

The Maryland-based company run by Craig Stuart-Paul pitched building a facility that used different parts of the waste stream for different purposes. Organic material would be turned into biofuels in a newly built waste-to-energy facility. Glass, metals and papers would be sifted out to be sold on the commodity market.

By pulling out recyclables, creating biofuel and condensing plastics into fuel pellets, Fiberight promised to divert as much waste as possible from landfills. The Municipal Review Committee signed up.

What happened? 

It took more time to construct the Fiberight facility, called Coastal Resources, than anticipated, but it opened in Hampden in 2019.

It operated for a short time before it ran out of money and shut down.

There were a number of reasons why. Midway through construction, the group opted to change builders. PERC mounted a legal challenge against the plant’s license. In addition the facility didn’t initially receive a beneficial use permit from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection that would have allowed it to sell products derived from the facility’s waste processing.

In a statement, Fiberight said the facility was forced to close after it ran out of money. While there were attempts to secure more financing before all of the money dried up, the company said new financing deals were pulled at the last minute.

“Today, the Fiberight team looks forward to working with whomever reopens and operates the facility to ensure the Hampden plant fulfills its true potential as an environmentally preferred solution for Maine’s waste,” the company said.

At the time, officials from the Municipal Review Committee hoped that the plant would get back up and running quickly, but nearly three years later it still has not restarted.

Despite multiple attempts to resuscitate the plant, the Municipal Review Committee has yet to find a new financier.

While the organization has some cash on hand, it doesn’t have enough to fund the restart of the facility and carry it through to profitability, which could be between 18 and 24 months after operations restart, Fussell said.

Since the plant’s closure in 2020, the Municipal Review Committee has secured ownership of the facility. It initially selected a New York-based financial firm called Revere Capital Advisors to be its private sector partner, but so far a deal hasn’t materialized.

Where the trash has gone instead

While the facility remains closed, the tons of waste produced by the 115 municipal members of the organization have to go somewhere. In one year, the communities belonging to the Municipal Review Committee generated about six percent of the state’s total waste.

From the start, the idea behind the Fiberight facility was to avoid sending waste to an incinerator or a landfill.

But, since 2019, the Municipal Review Committee’s members have sent most of their municipal solid waste — about 425,367 tons — to a landfill or PERC, according to data the facility is required to report to the state annually. That means most residents in the member communities no longer have a way to recycle.

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...