In the early 1990’s a paper mill in a small town in Maine used its leverage of providing over a thousand jobs and half the tax base to gain the right to build a landfill for their waste. The company threatened to leave town if their request was not granted. Twenty-five years later, community members are knee deep in a fight against what is becoming a trend in the waste management world: the massive expansion of existing landfills, also known as “mega-dumps.”
The Juniper Ridge Landfill is located between Old Town and Argyle Maine, a couple of miles from the Penobscot River that winds through heavily forested native Penobscot territory. Paddling canoes along the river, under the watchful eyes of several bald eagles, we learned the story of a growing landfill which continues to exploit surrounding communities. Self-proclaimed ”Riverbilly’s, or as they explained it, hillbilly’s without the hills, our guides are well versed in socio-ecological nature of the river and how it has been affected by years of industrial dumping and reclamation efforts.
Not even ten years after the landfill was first built, new ownership at the paper mill forced the dumping site into the hands of the state. Without the capacity to manage the site, the state of Maine lent $25 million to the waste management company Casella*, who continues to manage the landfill today. Almost immediately after Casella was given control, they proposed an expansion that would nearly triple the size of the landfill site. Expansion proposals like this would become a common occurrence in the following years as Casella continued to grow its profits.
Unfortunately not every municipality has a feasible alternative to dumpsters, resulting in a continued reliance on landfills. Too often these sites become acceptable simply because they are “not in my backyard”. This trend becomes a larger issue when you are a member of the Penobscot Nation or surrounding community, and your “backyard” has for decades, been a sacrifice zone of industrial river pollution, extraction, and mega-highway development proposals associated with the Juniper Ridge Landfill and its subsequent expansion.
These communities have received a hugely disproportionate burden of the obsolescence based society we live in. While the Juniper Ridge Landfill is a state owned landfill and cannot technically accommodate out of state material, a loophole in the law allows anything that has not been sorted before entering the state to be considered property of Maine. Thus, the entirety of the East Coast’s trash is fair game for increasing the profits of Casella’s operation. Furthermore, the landfill expansion allowed by this legislative loophole has secondary environmental consequences that infringe on the territorial rights of the native Penobscot nation, who rely on the river running through their lawfully granted territory for traditional sustenance purposes. In addition to Casella’s greed and a government’s blatant disregard for native territorial and resource rights, this tricky bit of legislation has locals wondering what it is going to take to keep Maine from becoming the dumping ground for all of New England.
*According to the community members this “loan”, given in 2003, has yet to be fully paid back.