Big biomass boiler bust
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  May 25, 2006

One of the keys to the salvation of the 400-plus jobs at the Old Town Georgia-Pacific paper mill was supposed to be the installation of a new biomass boiler to generate the mill’s electricity and lower its costs. The jobs were lost May 15 when the mill shut down after Governor John Baldacci failed to find a buyer for the facility.

But the boiler, it turns out, hasn’t worked correctly since it was fired up a year ago, according to state officials. It was not given a state permit to go into full operation, and would need to be fixed at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars before it could contribute to making the mill economically viable, officials say.

G-P’s spokesman, Robert Burns, while admitting the need to “continue to improve the efficiency of the boiler,” says the boiler was “operating in compliance with start-up permits with the state.” He would not directly answer the question: Does the boiler need to be fixed?

The intent was for it to burn cheap construction and demolition debris wood chips, which alarmed local environmental activists because that often releases poisons like dioxin and arsenic. (See “Toxinland,” by Lance Tapley, May 12.) But the boiler has not been able to pass state Department of Environmental Protection smokestack pollution tests even when it burns clean chips, says the DEP, because it produces too much carbon monoxide.

In an elaborate save-the-mill deal in 2003, after G-P shut it down for the first time, Baldacci arranged for the state to pay G-P $26 million to acquire its big Old Town waste dump, which the state then leased for that sum for 30 years to regional giant Casella Waste Systems—an extremely low price, according to critics. (See “Dumping Ground,” by Alex Irvine, April 2, 2004.) G-P then bought the boiler second-hand from a closed Boralex biomass plant in Athens. But G-P “bought something that needed to be fixed,” says DEP commissioner David Littell. “I’ve called their senior people and said ‘fix your boiler,’” but at a time when the corporation was getting rid of the mill he wasn’t able to develop much interest.

Littell says that “there are other issues on the air [pollution] side” that are even bigger, having to do with the mill’s pulp processes. Burns, the G-P public relations man, responds, “We’re in compliance in that area as well.”

Paul Schroeder, of We the People, a Bangor-area citizen activist group, is disgusted with every aspect of the save-the-mill deal. The only winner, he says, is Casella, which is “making out like a bandit” by opening a landfill that, under state law, the company would not have been able to have by any other means. (See “Enviro Update,” by Alex Irvine, February 11, 2005.)

The governor’s spokeswoman, Crystal Canney, says the malfunctioning boiler is “not a sticking point on the sale.” Negotiations between G-P and a potential buyer for the mill are continuing, she says, beyond the May 15 shutdown deadline G-P had set in March when it announced the mill’s closure.

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