2013-10-17 / Front Page

The great wide open

Concrete floors will remain at MERC site
By Ben Meiklejohn Staff Writer

The demolition of structures at the former Maine Energy Recovery Company site has been completed and the last of the debris is being moved this week. The concrete floor will remain, and city officials say it might be used for parking until there is a new development project at the site. (Ben Meiklejohn photo) The demolition of structures at the former Maine Energy Recovery Company site has been completed and the last of the debris is being moved this week. The concrete floor will remain, and city officials say it might be used for parking until there is a new development project at the site. (Ben Meiklejohn photo) BIDDEFORD – With the structures now demolished and most of the debris removed, the final cleanup of the former Maine Energy Recovery Company site at 3 Lincoln St. has begun.

The city bought the property from Casella Waste Systems last year for $6.5 million and city officials are preparing to explore options for development.

Brian Phinney, the city’s environmental code officer, said the company is moving the remaining debris this week. All of the concrete floors will remain and will be cleaned along with the entire site, which will undergo dioxin remediation and PCB cleanup, Phinney said. Polychlorinated biphenyls are cancer-causing pollutants that were used as coolants in electrical equipment through most of the 20th century; they were banned from domestic use in 1979.

Economic Development Director Daniel Stevenson said the city wanted to keep the floor because “it’s all impervious surface that can be used for parking as a way to generate revenue for the city … and there could be potential for reusing it.”

Stevenson said the city had the option of digging the floor up and putting grass in its place, but a future developer may end up removing the green and putting a foundation back down. If it turns out that a developer does not want the floor, Stevenson said, then it may be removed later.

Stevenson said the soil underneath the concrete floor was tested for contamination by boring holes through the floor. Phinney could not be reached by the Courier’s deadline to confirm that the soil beneath the floor is uncontaminated.

According to the agreement between the city and Casella Waste Systems, the company is responsible for cleaning the site to residential standards by the end of November. Phinney said transfer of ownership to the city is pending the results of final testing and approval by the Department of Environmental Protection. However, if the federal government shutdown continues for any length of time, approval will be difficult to obtain if the department is closed, he said.

Phinney said residential standards are the “most stringent” standards, so once the site meets that standard, the location can be used for anything.

City Manager John Bubier said the eightand a-half-acre site is “the best development site in southern Maine at this point in time – it’s next to the railroad, near the turnpike, it’s got a riverside view – this site is really special.”

According to Economic Developer Director Daniel Stevenson, the city will spend approximately $100,000 on “predevelopment work,” using tax increment financing over the winter months, to make it appealable for “highest and best uses for the site.”

“Why this is important is because we want to redevelop it to be highly competitive to the private business sector,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson said developers look at site feasibility, financial feasibility and reduction of indemnification – the amount of liability developers could be subject to due to the property’s condition – when they consider whether to buy property. The environmental factor – the cleanup currently taking place – “is a very, very big deal,” Stevenson said, because it reduces risk for future property owners.

Phinney said the cleanup being performed by Casella Waste Systems includes removing PCB contamination from a half-acre lot by the river that was likely present before the company purchased the property.

“All indications are that there was PCB contamination, according to the old Sanborn maps, prior to the 1930s,” Phinney said. “Where the majority of the contaminants are is in the front part of where the building was, where they did rewire the electrical system with equipment that contained coolants.”

Any new development at the site will be subject to a fiscal impact analysis, said Stevenson, to see how the city’s police, fire and public works departments will be affected.

“Whatever happens, it is not going to be a single industry,” Bubier said. “In general, we want different things that work in consort with one another. The goal is to find a special group of people who can build a project together to be an anchor for the city and the region.”

“We have a prescribed process for determining what to do next,” Stevenson said. “It’s not going to be haphazard. To sell the site, we don’t just start by putting up a for sale sign on the site and selling it to the first project that comes along.”

At-Large City Councilor Richard Rhames said the remaining floor could possibly be used as surface parking for a brief period of time, while the city considers its options for the land.

“I’m not inclined to stick a for sale sign in the ground, I’m not in favor of rushing to judgment,” Rhames said. “We can develop a strategy for redevelopment and do a nationwide search.”

“We can afford to be choosy,” he added.

Stevenson said the advantage of completing predevelopment work, such as designing and constructing access roads and walkways, is that a project will be able to get done at “a very quick pace,” and the site will have a higher selling value and generate more property tax revenue.

Other predevelopment work includes getting permits pre-approved by the state, and providing planning information on easements for utilities, Stevenson said.

“We want to make sure to maximize the city’s return on investment,” Stevenson said.

A request for proposal is currently being drafted and should be finalized for the public by the end of November, said Stevenson – about the same time the city takes over the property from Casella Waste Systems.

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