Posted by: Katie Herklotz
During our stay in Biddeford we have had the opportunity to meet with city planners, the
town mayor, university campus sustainability planners, the community bike center, visionary businessmen, and concerned locals alike to talk about sustainability issues in this progressing Maine town. During these conversations, Maine Energy Recovery Company (MERC) was a common concern among the constituents of the twin cities Biddeford and Saco, as the outdated waste incinerating plant emits volatile organic compounds (VOCs), dioxins, heavy metals and carcinogens into the air and ground water supply. MERC has been an active incineration plant since 1987, and was originally promoted as a benefit to the community by providing jobs and dealing with waste in an efficient way. Unfortunately, MERC never satisfied the original emission limit requirements, and is referred to by the American Environmental Health Association as, “Maine’s Continuing Nightmare”. This sentiment was obvious to us in the short time we were in Biddeford as we interacted with various community members.
Mayor Joanne Twomey notes that Biddeford’s identity unfortunately more known as “garbage city” rather than a progressive college town (University of New England, a campus committed to sustainability, is located 5 miles away) or an attractive city to start a business, with the North Dam Mill home to over 100 local businesses. Brian Phinney shared a philosophical insight with us, explaining that historically Biddeford was the working class town and Saco was the management. He believes that these feelings of separation are residual, and as long as MERC is located in Biddeford the city will be condemned to the “garbage city” status mentioned by Mayor Twomey.
After so much talk of MERC, we were excited to attend the public hearing in the Biddeford City Hall on Thursday night and see what concerns and solutions the community would bring forth. Ari, Greg and I arrived at the meeting greeted by many familiar faces we met throughout the week, which gave us a real sense of community (one we had only been a part of for four days!).
The community meeting began with a presentation from Brian Phinney outlining the history of VOC emissions, odor complaints, and components of the license proposed to make the facility cleaner. When it was time for community members to take the floor and address the officials from Augusta, their responses were unanimously anti-MERC. Complaints ranged from a woman outraged that she wasn’t able to open her windows at work because the nauseating odor from the garbage that wafted in, a relator who couldn’t rent apartments too close to MERC for health and odor issues, and many individuals who voiced concern that the presence of MERC was holding Biddeford back from being a progressive Maine city. We felt a little out of our element, as we seemed to be the only visionaries in the room. After careful consideration, Ari and I took the podium to ask the public to stretch their thinking beyond odor and real estate and consider the big picture of MERC’s impact and creating a better future free of these kinds of Neanderthal-like facilities. We were unsure of the relevance of our statement until the mayor spoke and echoed our sentiments (in a much more eloquent, influential and cohesive way of course). She spoke seriously that herself and the people of Biddeford would hold MERC accountable until conditions improved. She urged people to care about the heavy metals, dioxins, and carcinogens beyond the odors, as these are pollutants that are affecting
human health, not just making for stinky town. Her words hit home to us, as we believe that if people could see or smell carbon dioxide, climate change would be at the forefront of people’s concerns. We left the meeting hopeful that MERC would clean up it’s act, and confident in the people of Biddeford and the visionary Mayor to settle for nothing less.