ORRINGTON, Maine — The Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. (PERC) in Orrington is accepting trash again after shutting down in late July due to a fire at the facility that damaged cables.
The waste-to-energy processing facility reduces the volume of trash sent to landfills by 90 percent by taking in trash from about 40 nearby communities. It also brings in about 75 percent of trash from the 115 towns and cities part of the Municipal Review Committee.
Henry Lang, the plant manager for PERC, says his workers see fires happen at the facility almost on a daily basis.
"They've said they see at least one a shift where they see a flare-up coming out of one of the grinders," Lang said.
Lang says they see significant fires at the plant about four times a year, and minor ones once or twice a month.
The workers try to sort out the waste as best they can when it comes in, but "it's so crumbled up sometimes it's hard to decipher what you got," Bill Ellingwood, an operator at the facility, said.
The problem is simple: people are throwing hazardous materials into their trash that should instead be properly recycled.
"We see a lot of materials that shouldn't come here because the facility isn't supposed to get them, but when they're in a trash bag, you don't know," Lang said.
Materials like lithium batteries from laptops and power tools, as well as propane tanks with fuel still in them are some primary causes of the fires.
"As technologies advance, batteries have become more and more a part of our lives, so I think that has increased their frequency in the trash. The lithium batteries have a real potential to flare up if they're damaged when they're outside of what they're engineered to do," Lang said.
Other pressurized cylinders like fire extinguishers can also cause a number of dangers at the facility.
"There are a lot of things that come here that pose more than just a fire hazard," Lang said.
Beyond the flames, it's chemicals and other toxins that don't belong in the trash bin that are posing a threat to workers at the plant.
"A lot of pool chemicals come in during the summertime here ... mixed with oils and stuff it can be very dangerous," Ellingwood said.
When the PERC plant shuts down, all trash is diverted to nearby landfills.
"We feel under the gun whenever we're bypassing to try to get things back on an even-keel and start processing the waste again," Lang said.
Lang says he hopes the facility will be processing trash again once the repair work is finished by early next week.
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