June 06, 2020

Expansion plan for SERF may head to court > Hope dims for Hampden landfill compromise

HAMPDEN — Court may be the next step for the players involved with the Sawyer Environmental Recovery Facility’s proposed expansion.

Negotiations among SERF, the Hampden Citizens Coalition and representatives from the town broke down Friday, fueled by disagreement over how much the landfill could expand at the Hampden site.

“The whole process was an attempt to avoid extremes — this draws us unavoidably toward court,” Don Meagher of SERF said Monday.

The coalition chairman took that prospect in stride. “Maybe it will take a judicial decision to make things clear once and for all,” said Norm Thurlow, whose group opposes SERF’s expansion.

The parties have met with the State Planning Office almost weekly since before Christmas. The gatherings were organized by the municipal review committee, which had hoped to change an adversarial relationship to a collaborative one, minimizing the likelihood of a court battle between SERF and the town. Ray Pipes, the town code enforcement officer, ruled recently that most of SERF’s proposed expansion would be in violation of the town’s zoning ordinance.

A legal contretemps between SERF and the town now seems all but inevitable. Attorneys for SERF would file an action in Penobscot County Superior Court to see if the town can stop SERF from expanding, according to Philip Ahrens, attorney for SERF and its parent company, Casella.

As part of the proposal put forth Friday, SERF officials said the landfill would use 1.45 million cubic yards in Hampden and another 1.85 million at Carpenter Ridge, a state-owned landfill outside Lincoln. They would close the Hampden landfill between 2006 and 2009.

But coalition members, who said that 1.45 million cubic yards would necessitate a change in the zoning ordinance, pointed out that last November residents had voted against such a change. They said that 700,000 cubic yards potentially could be the limit under the existing zoning ordinance, and they proposed that SERF close in 2003.

On Monday, the parties reflected on their failure to agree to a compromise. Some were determined to look on the bright side. “The time wasn’t utterly wasted,” said Thurlow. “It’s good the state was involved and that everybody sat down — we learned a little about things as we went along.”

George MacDonald of the State Planning Office concurred. “It’s not a total loss — all sides benefited from discussion, and the fact that we got as far as we did means that the process does work. We’ll just have to let other courses take place,” said MacDonald. He pointed out that besides Casella’s lawsuit, the town and the coalition next week plan to appeal SERF’s Department of Environmental Protection license.

Other participants sounded frustrated. “The coalition is putting themselves in the path of what’s good for the region,” said Meagher, adding that SERF was making a tremendous concession by agreeing to relocate to Carpenter Ridge.

Thurlow said he wished the state would commit to finding another landfill site. “This could go either way and the state has to be ready,” he said.

And Bill Lippincott of the coalition said he came away wondering about the intent of the meetings. “I thought [the coalition] was called to participate to help the state look at long-term solutions to solid waste disposal,” he said. “What the meetings seemed to be was how can we accommodate SERF’s needs.”

The larger issue still remains, according to Tom Brown, attorney for the municipal review committee. “We’re going to have to do something with this — we’ve still got 1,000 tons of trash a day that goes to PERC,” he said. The review committee represents communities that use the Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. to dispose of their trash. A shortened life span for the landfill could mean that PERC would have to seek another — possibly more costly — solid waste solution for its ash sooner and pass the costs on to 220 communities.

Brown pointed out that other initiatives are in place. MRC has a bill before the Legislature asking that it have the same powers as the State Planning Office to site a landfill. He also referred to Sen. Betty Lou Mitchell’s bill, which asks the Legislature to establish a task force to look into re-examining state policy on solid waste management.

Meanwhile, Betsy Chapman, a Hampden resident who believes SERF should be allowed to expand, admitted Monday that she was disappointed. “It had looked as though we were going to be coming to a negotiated agreement to provide for all the parties, the people in Hampden and the thousands of people who rely upon SERF,” said Chapman, who attended many of the gatherings.

“I had hoped we’d be able to provide for now and for an orderly transition for future waste disposal,” she said. “Now I’m really concerned about broaching the property rights of a responsible local business and possibly running up huge legal bills for the town.”

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