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More than a decade after it was first proposed, what was billed as a revolutionary trash and recycling facility in Hampden remains surrounded by controversy and uncertainty. Despite nearly $100 million – some of it taxpayer money – having been spent and the brief operation of the plant, serious questions about its viability remain unanswered.
In 2010, the Municipal Review Committee, which now has 115 member communities from Wiscasset to Smyrna, decided to pursue a whole new approach to waste management to reduce the amount of trash that goes to landfills. It picked a company in 2014 called Fiberight that promised to run a plant that diverted trash away from landfills or incineration, the two of the least favorable ways to process, according to a state hierarchy. Instead the facility would pull out recyclables to be sold, turn organic material into biofuel and condense plastic garbage into fuel pellets.
From day one, many experts warned that what was being proposed was too good to be true. The mixture of technologies proposed had never been combined and used in that way before. The facility, which is now owned by the MRC, has faced many difficulties, including some out of its control such as permitting delays and legal challenges and a spike in recycling market costs.
It ran for only a few months, before closing for financial reasons in June of 2020. It has been dormant since then as various financing efforts fell through.
Concerns about the plant’s viability are reinforced by the fact that private financing for the facility has been hard to come by. We’re no finance experts, but if this is such a great idea that is economically viable, it seems like the money needed to run it would be easier to obtain. Instead, efforts to secure the funding needed to run the plant have faltered.
Now, the Municipal Review Committee says it needs $20 million to ensure the whole thing isn’t sold and likely mothballed. It is asking the state to provide the loan guarantees needed to help the group secure this funding. The MRC and its partners haven’t been able to secure a bank loan because there isn’t enough collateral to secure the loan and it is hard to put a value on its operations because it was only operational for a few months and has been shuttered for nearly three years.
The red flags that have scared away private investors should also concern state lawmakers as they consider MRC’s request.
Since the viability of the plant – and the technologies it will use – remain an open question, the best thing MRC can do is work to answer them. It says it has engineering assessments that show the plan will work, but it can’t share them because they were done as part of negotiations to secure private financing. We understand that such negotiations are often confidential, but the MRC is a collection of municipal officials so its work should be open to the public. Therefore, it has an obligation to prove its claims.
To answer these questions, the MRC should undertake an independent assessment of the facility and the technology its uses. That assessment should be readily available to the public, especially lawmakers that are being asked to back the facility.
The stakes are very high. With the promise of the Hampden facility, MRC member communities sent all their waste to the plant with the belief that recyclables and other materials that could be reused would be pulled from the mix. With the plant idle, that waste stream now goes to the landfill for many communities. If the plant does not reopen, MRC communities face hard – and likely costly – decisions about their solid waste management. The failure of the facility also upends efforts to divert waste away from landfills, which are filling up more quickly than expected.
We, along with many others, remain skeptical about the future of the Hampden facility. The best way to allay some of those doubts would be an independent assessment of its viability. With such an assessment, better informed decisions about its future can be made.