Earlier this week the Maine Department of Environmental Protection made a formal determination that Maine would benefit from an expansion of the state-owned Juniper Ridge Landfill located in Old Town. In doing so, it cut in half what the State and Juniper’s private manager Casella Waste Systems Inc.’s subsidiary NEWSME had asked for, authorizing an expansion that would increase capacity of the landfill by up to 9.35 million cubic yards, thereby adding ten-plus years of capacity. By cutting the proposal down to size, the DEP sent the clear message that it doesn’t want Maine to continue to be the dumping ground for New England’s waste. That relatively conservative approach is a good start but more work needs to be done to define the role of Juniper and other landfills and to fully address other flaws in Maine’s waste management system.
CLF opposed the Juniper expansion largely because an approval of the 20 years of landfill capacity proposed would have amounted to a surrender to the forces that are keeping Maine’s recycling rate down, limiting our reuse of waste as compost or for other beneficial purposes and driving (literally) Maine and out-of state waste to be disposed of in Juniper and other landfills in the state. So did this decision have the State only half capitulating to Casella and its waste partners?
The answer to that question is complicated and it is still too early to know for certain, but some things are clear at this point. There is no doubt that this decision indicates that the Maine DEP is willing to continue to make landfills a centerpiece of its waste management regime. However, that does not necessarily mean that it intends for Juniper and other landfills to be the option of first resort for our trash. Indeed, the DEP decision justifies its reduction in the expansion size by citing to the potential negative impacts that a fully expanded Juniper Ridge would have had on initiatives to encourage waste reduction, reuse and recycling. To its credit, DEP also implies that it will seek to eliminate disincentives in the tipping fees charged by Juniper that have the effect of making landfill disposal less costly than processing or composting waste as well as to limit the practice of disposing of massive quantities of construction and demolition debris processing residues at Juniper. DEP should be encouraged to aggressively pursue these efforts.
There are also positive indications in the DEP decision that it would like to change the 10-year solid waste status quo in Maine. The Department’s findings seem to encourage statutory changes that would limit the landfilling of waste from other states by redefining what is considered out-of-state waste. It also gives implied support for a statutory waste fee structure that would serve as an incentive to limit imported waste and to increase our beneficial reuse and recycling of garbage. Finally, DEP uses its authority in this decision to place some specific limitations on the manner in which Juniper in managed, by limiting the amount of both unprocessed waste and construction and demolition debris that can be disposed of each year at Juniper and by requiring audits designed to keep Casella honest and operating more for the benefit of Mainers than its own bottom line. These are needed improvements.
So despite the DEP’s decision to allow NEWSME to pursue an expansion of Juniper Ridge, there is some reason for hope in addressing the many remaining issues on the solid waste to-do list of the DEP, the Legislature and the Governor. At a minimum, the list contained in the DEP’s decision should be expanded to include: a meaningful increase in fees charged by the state for waste disposal at any landfill to fund recycling programs and disincent land disposal; re-establish and invigorate municipal recycling programs that create jobs, save towns money and reduce our waste; and, establish caps on the amount of solid waste that can be disposed of annually in Maine landfills to limit disposal and avoid the importation of waste by our waste to energy facilities, the residues of which fill our landfills. These actions would sufficiently counterbalance an expansion of Juniper Ridge to ensure that it is only one piece of a larger and more forward thinking strategy.