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Opponents question Casella operations in Maine communities

This is the third in a series on Casella Waste, which is seeking a 30-year contract with the City of Lewiston to take over the city’s recycling transfer station, build a single-stream recycling facility and lease land at Lewiston’s River Road landfill. The contract would allow Casella to process 90 million pounds of “mixed recyclable” waste a year.

The first and second parts were published last week. See them at Click on the Digital Edition, then click on the Archive button at top right to see the November 15 Digital Edition.

By Hillary Lister

and Dan Gregoire

As Massachusetts and New Hampshire tightened their waste laws, respectively banning the dumping and burning of Construction and Demolition Debris (CDD), Casella Waste sought more locations to send waste from these states.

Governor Baldacci’s administration received major donations from Casella for the 2006 election, and Maine’s waste regulations were significantly weakened, while subsidies for dumping and burning CDD in Maine were greatly expanded.

In April 2009, a MERC Task Force was formed, made up of officials from the state, Biddeford, Saco and Casella. The Task Force, funded largely by Casella, employed Governor Baldacci’s former chief legal counsel Tom Federle to represent them in legal, regulatory and legislative matters.

The Governor’s former lawyer incorporated the Maine Green Energy Alliance (MGEA), a new nonprofit that Casella and the Task Force needed to qualify for a significant portion of a $30 million federal stimulus grant for energy efficiency.

MGEA claimed it would partner with Biddeford, Saco, Westbrook and Old Town to retrofit homes and businesses, with discount electricity for homeowners who completed “weatherization retrofits.” However, the majority of the money would go to renovating MERC to burn trash pellets and building a recycling center in Westbrook that would process waste and create pellets of it, sending leftovers to the Old Town dump.

The plan began to fall apart in early 2010, when Mayor Twomey of Biddeford announced the city was leaving the task force. Twomey had originally supported the plan, but became concerned when she was unable to get answers to questions about how many homes would qualify for discount electricity and about the safety of the pellets.

Twomey was told that the program would be offering energy audits, weatherization and discount energy to Biddeford residents by January 2010, none of which was available by that time. The mayor said the MGEA was using “green washing” as a way to get a “company bailout” of federal stimulus funds for Casella. “This is nothing more than a [public relations] detoxification. It’s like lipstick on a pig. There will still be dioxins,” she said.

People in Old Town found out about the plan and raised concerns at council meetings that residents of the town had never been notified of Old Town’s participation in MGEA. As a result of these and other complications, a portion of the grant that would have funded Casella’s projects in Biddeford and Westbrook was dropped, though attorney Federle was able to secure $1 million to promote MGEA’s home weatherization plan.

Following reports that much of the grant money was being spent on bloated salaries for Democratic party insiders and Federle’s legal fees—with only 50 homes weatherized between August and the end of December—the MGEA Board voted to shut down the organization and turned over the remaining $645,000 to Efficiency Maine.

The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) issued a report in August 2011 detailing the nonprofit’s “High Risk for Misuse of Funds and Non-compliance with Laws and Regulations.” raising concerns about Federle’s employment by Casella. Federle continues work as a lobbyist for Casella.

Throughout this time, Casella was also seeking state approval for major expansion of the JRL dump in Old Town. The expansion plan was rejected by DEP Commissioner David Littell in 2010. In 2011, former Casella lobbyist Pat Aho was appointed as the replacement DEP Commissioner.

In January 2012 she signed off on a Public Benefit approval for expansion for the JRL dump. The Public Benefit approval still faces many hurdles, and residents of Old Town, Alton and members of Penobscot Nation have been active in challenging the expansion.

The same week Aho signed off on the Public Benefit approval, a letter signed by a tri-partisan group of 10 legislators was submitted to the Government Oversight Committee, requesting that OPEGA do a full review and audit of dealings between the State of Maine and Casella.

The letter sought answers to the following questions:

1) What percentage of waste being sent to JRL is generated outside of Maine’s borders?

2) Is Casella operating JRL and associated facilities in a manner that follows the State of Maine’s Solid Waste Hierarchy?

3) Have the terms of the Operating Services Agreement been followed, and have changes been made in a way that is accountable to the Public?

4) Has there been misuse of public funds related to Casella’s operation of JRL?

5) Has Casella complied with terms of its Host Community Agreement?

6) Have there been anti-competitive actions relating to RFPs and the process of awarding State-funded contracts to Casella?

7) Are there conflicts of interest involving the State Planning Office’s (SPO) oversight of JRL, and with the planned elimination of the SPO in 2012, are there potential conflicts of interest with oversight of JRL by the Department of Environmental Protection?

The letter called for OPEGA to look at Casella’s record in other towns and surrounding states. It cites a $1 million fine levied against Casella by the State of Vermont in 2011 for anti-competitive actions and problems with contracts. According to the news outlet VTDigger, Vermont had a legal rights to over $24 million in fines, and the Casella fine is “the state’s largest settlement with a Vermont business.”

The letter also raised questions about monopolistic practices in Maine, with Casella repeatedly gaining publicly funded multi-year contracts through bid processes that favor Casella over competitors. It references the Requests for Proposals (RFP) process the for original JRL dump contract in 2003 that was effectively written for Casella and excluded competitors.

It also brings up concerns over the process that awarded a University of Maine’s single-stream recycling contract to Casella. Ecomaine, a smaller waste and recycling company out of Portland, challenged the awarding the contract to Casella, arguing the RFP was limited so that only Casella could win the recycling contract.

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