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State-of-the-art waste facility closes temporarily

New operator, investor sought
By Fran Gonzalez | Jun 25, 2020
Courtesy of: Coastal Resources Coastal Resources' Hampden waste-to-energy facility has temporarily suspended operations. Municipal waste from member towns is being diverted to landfills.

The Municipal Review Committee is looking for a new operator who will manage the Coastal Resources/Fiberight facility in Hampden, and make the plant profitable while achieving its full potential. The committee is also looking for a new investor to fill funding gaps that have beset the $70-million waste-to-energy facility.

The MRC, a nonprofit organization composed of 115 member cities and towns across the state, contracts with Coastal Resources for waste disposal and recycling.

Maryland-based Fiberight LLC is the parent company that developed and owns the technology used at the plant. To raise capital for the facility, Fiberight sold Coastal stock to an equity investor, Ultra Capital, which currently shares ownership of the facility with Fiberight, and MRC is landlord of the property where the project is located.

The state-of-the-art facility was supposed to open in April 2018, but delays in construction and an eight-month legal appeal by Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. placed the high-tech trash disposal plant on shaky ground. The facility did open in April 2019, but was not fully operational until November.

In February of this year, the MRC Board of Directors gave Coastal a short-term $1.5-million loan for improvements, but it was not until an expected $14.7 million in funding from bondholders fell through that Coastal suspended operations.

A June 10 statement from MRC Executive Director Michael Carroll said the Coastal Resources had shut down the facility May 28 due to lack of funding that would support plant improvements and cash flow. Because of this, he said, all municipal waste is being diverted to Crossroads Landfill in Norridgewock and Juniper Ridge Landfill in Old Town.

Carroll said the situation is temporary and encouraged member towns to stay the course. The issue is “financial, organizational, and fixable with sufficient capital and proper expertise on the ground,” he said, and added the technology was not in question.

The MRC gave Coastal a default notice for “bypassing waste outside of normal circumstances” such as a mechanical failure, and stipulated they now have until the end of June to “come to us with a cure — a solution to get the plant back up and running,” Carroll said.

“We are currently working with Fiberight, Ultra Capital, and the plant’s bondholders to get us back to full commercial operations,” he said.

In a June 17 virtual town hall meeting, MRC Chairman Karen Fussell outlined several factors that contributed to the plant’s current situation including construction delays and costs that exceeded their expectations. After closing in on a contract with a Canadian buyer for their pulp, she said, the border was closed because of concerns over the coronavirus.

“It was a series of factors that resulted in Coastal using up all the cash reserves it had on hand,” she said. “When it got to the point where it needed to do investment in the plant to run optimally, … it just did not have to cash to continue operating.”

Fussell said the board does not anticipate Coastal will be able to ‘cure the default’ within the next two weeks but added the board was not planning to take immediate action after the 30-day period had elapsed. MRC counsel, she said, advised against terminating the contract as it adds value to the facility.

At the same time, she said, "We will not let this go on forever. We're anticipating a resolution or at least an understanding of whether there is a path to success with the plant within the next 30-60 days.

“We are not interested in propping-up (Coastal) and MRCs sole focus is to get a new operator in the plant,” Fussell said. “In addition to the bondholders, we lack confidence in the ability of the partners of the Coastal arrangement to manage the plant adequately.”

The committee’s technical consultant, George Aronson said the MRC has been soliciting proposals and that there has been interest from strategic investors as well as agents that deal in distressed assets.

“Why are we still pushing this?” he asked.

Aronson said he has seen the plant make pulp and fuel briquettes which are marketable products, and that adjustments were made and equipment was modified. “There is an understanding where there needs to be improvement and there is a plan to invest to bring the plant to where it can be profitable,” he said.

“The shame is to come so far, and yet not have the level of investment to make the last set of improvements to get into profitability,” he said.

Carroll said he sees “places for some of the players involved, but that when it comes to running the plant, the MRC is looking for boots on the ground, local management.... From a corporate level it lacked leadership and a local presence,” and added he thought Fiberight would continue to play a technology role at the facility.

In response to a question whether towns would be allowed to pull out from the MRC contract if the plant was not operational, Fussell said they were hoping for an alternative solution that would allow the facility to open. “Until that point, MRC is not in default to its members.” Member towns would not be allowed to leave without a penalty, she said.

Board member Cathy Conlow said, “…the value of the organization, the cooperative that allows us to aggregate the sale of our garbage and allows us to come up with community coordinated solutions for recycling, wouldn’t exist without the strength of the 115 municipalities…. Those challenges get more difficult the smaller you get.

“Our strength remains as a cooperative looking for a regional solution,” she said.

One question asked what the difference was between burning briquettes which are produced at the facility and burning waste for energy, as is done at PERC. Fussell said the selling of briquettes as fuel was seen as a “back-up opportunity for short-term revenue until the full value of those products could be realized and the market could be established.”

Aronson added the briquettes are a higher value product and that it could potentially be used for synthetic diesel in the future.

The next MRC virtual town hall meeting is scheduled for July 1 at 10 a.m. For more information, visit mrcmaine.org.

In Waldo County, towns belonging to MRC include: Belfast, Brooks, Freedom, Knox, Montville, Searsmont, Thorndike, Troy and Unity.

 

 

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