The shuttered Coastal Resources of Mainae recycling facility in Hampden (Photo: Ethan Andrews)
The shuttered Coastal Resources of Mainae recycling facility in Hampden (Photo: Ethan Andrews)
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At a January 19 presentation to the Municipal Review Committee, the nonprofit that represents 115 Maine municipalities in matters of trash, Rob Van Naarden, CEO of Delta Thermo Energy, described a scene that sounded as if it were from another era.

“As we speak here today, there are barges that are moving from New York City south, outside the 12-mile limit,” he said. “They put them in international waters. All they do is carry sewage sludge from New York City. It used to go to Louisiana to a landfill down there. But recently, a couple of months ago, they refused to take it. And so they’re looking for other places. We eliminate that need.”

Delta Thermo Energy had just been announced as the prospective buyer of the Coastal Resources of Maine recycling plant in Hampden. The facility, developed by Maryland-based Fiberight, closed last May when Coastal Resources ran out of money and bondholders declined a last-ditch $14.7 million loan request.

In the aftermath, representatives of MRC speculated that with a few more months it might have worked. In the meantime, bondholders put out a request for letters of interest from parties willing to restart the plant.

Delta Thermo Energy was chosen from a field of 15.

Van Naarden said the immediate plan is to reopen the Coastal Resources facility. Sometime in the next year, he said, Delta Thermo Energy would assess the technology for improvements and “start adding some services for the benefit of the [MRC] members.” That could be new technology for municipal solid waste, he said, or it could involve processing sewer sludge.

DTE has never operated a plant like Coastal Resources, but it has worked for more than 10 years on a parallel technology called hydrothermal decomposition, in which municipal solid waste, sewer sludge, or a mixture of the two, is broken down using hot pressurized steam. The end product, called engineered pulverized fuel, burns hot and clean, Van Naarden said, making it a potential replacement for the coal used in boilers at paper mills and cement plants, among other industries. He said it’s too soon to say what that means for Hampden.

“Waste has different characteristics at different times of the year, or coming from different parts of the country,” he said. “Not that we’re going to import it from anywhere else, but we need to understand the characteristics of the waste first, which we know nothing about right now. You’d be surprised, from these 115 municipalities, there are variations. Once we understand that, then we can better decide how to apply our own technology.”

The New York City sludge-barge comment caught the attention of Jim Vallette, vice chair of the town of Southwest Harbor warrant committee, who wondered if DTE was planning to invite the sewer barges to Maine and what that would look like.

“If a flood of plastic waste from Europe wasn’t enough for Penobscot Bay,” he wrote in an email later, “now the Municipal Review Committee is perfectly happy to let Delta Energy … set up an incinerator at the Hampden site and barge in sewage sludge from throughout the East Coast.” The plastic waste referred to two bales of shredded plastic dropped from a U.K. cargo ship into the water off Searsport in December. The solid recovered fuel, as it is known in the waste-to-energy business, was bound for Penobscot Energy Recovery Company in Orrington where it would serve as a backup fuel source for PERC’s electricity-generating trash incinerator.

Prior to the opening of the Hampden facility in 2019, PERC processed the municipal trash of the MRC towns, which included Belfast Brooks, Freedom, Knox, Montville, Searsmont, Thorndike, Troy and Unity in Waldo County; Cushing and Friendship in Knox County; and Boothbay, Boothbay Harbor, Edgecomb, Southport, Waldoboro and Wiscasset in Lincoln County.

At the end of its contract with PERC, MRC rallied its member towns to sign on with Fiberight, for an as-yet-unbuilt facility that promised to combine the convenience of single-sort recycling with a relatively new technology designed to “digest” organic material and produce biogas. Some towns were skeptical of the promises of the start-up company, which had not built a full-scale facility at that point, and remained with PERC. But the larger share went with Fiberight/Coastal Resources.

In an ironic twist, when Coastal Resources shut down last year, much of the trash was diverted back to PERC.

Van Naarden of Delta Thermo Energy said he hopes to close on the facility at the end of March. MRC Executive Director Michael Carroll said the bondholder owners of the Hampden facility “requested documentation confirming that DTE has access to sufficient capital to buy and operate the plant and were satisfied with what DTE presented.”

Delta’s resume

Based on statements from Van Naarden, published articles and documents obtained by Vallette and reviewed by The Free Press, Delta Thermo Energy’s past work falls into two main categories: a list of overseas projects that Van Naarden has described as successful, but about which few public records exist; and a run of proposals in the U.S., nearly all of which have not been completed for one reason or another — DTE built small pilot facilities, in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, and Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

All of the overseas projects, Van Naarden said, have been operating for “approximately 11-plus years,” but details are protected by the host country’s privacy laws. “We were brought in as engineers, technologists, and in some cases, builders and contractors on-site as a thing was being built,” he said. “In each situation it’s a little different. But there are these facilities running successfully and reliably around Europe and Asia.”

Vallette, in his research, found some evidence that principals in DTE worked on several of the overseas projects.

Van Naarden incorporated Delta Thermo Energy in the U.S. in 2009. Previously he had an extensive background in computing. He led a kosher chicken producer out of financial peril. A year before starting DTE he founded a private equity fund, BVB Capital Group.

Speaking last week, he said he became interested in solid waste disposal because he saw an opportunity.

“Once we determined what the opportunity was, we literally traveled the world for three years trying to find the right technologies that we could apply to this waste problem,” he said. “There was no reason for us to be groundbreaking inventors; that didn’t make much sense. We knew that the United States was years behind the rest of the world in how to handle trash."

From 2010 to 2016 the company was active in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Probably its best publicized plans were in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where Van Naarden and company worked over a period of several years on a proposal for a 48,000-square-foot facility that would have used DTE’s hydrothermal decomposition process on all of the city’s municipal solid waste and sewer sludge and burned the resulting fuel to generate electricity.

The project was jumpstarted by a $1 million U.S. Department of Energy grant awarded jointly to the city and DTE in late 2010. In February 2012, the Atlantic City Press reported, “Over the next five-to-seven years, Van Naarden said his company hopes to build as many as 20 facilities across the country.”

A year later, DTE missed a deadline to show financial backing, and in 2014, after a year of extensions, the city of Allentown terminated its agreement with DTE. Van Naarden attributes the failure of the project to chaos within city government. An FBI investigation and raid the following year produced a number of corruption charges centered around then-Mayor Ed Pawlowski. DTE provided documents to the FBI to aid in the investigation and was not connected to the corruption, according to news reports from the time.

Van Naarden and DTE continued to pitch ambitious projects but didn’t fare much better in the years that followed. In 2015, reporting on a $45 million to $50 million facility that Van Naarden hoped to build in Paterson, N.J., the Paterson Times wrote,"He also said there are 22 other municipalities in New Jersey the company is currently in talks with to setup a waste-to-energy facility. He would not provide any names."

In 2016, DTE was run out of Muncy, Pennsylvania, after the City Council enacted a setback ordinance that effectively blocked the proposed facility. Van Naarden said he was invited to the town by a man he knew who owned a 120,000-square-foot building there. “I didn’t seek out Muncy,” he said. “I didn’t even know where Muncy was.” In both Paterson and Muncy, Van Naarden said he was only responding to demand. “I must tell you, people contact us,” he said. “I don’t even know how they find us. And they bring us and say, hey, let’s talk about doing something here. And for a variety of reasons, it hasn’t worked out.”

If Fiberight is any example, some of DTE’s false start might owe to working in uncharted territory. In an email to the city of Allentown during negotiations there, DTE’s attorney described “attempting to combine Japanese, Korean and German recycling technologies in a way that has never been done before.”

Control of the Coastal Resources facility in Hampden is complicated. MRC owns the land and holds the permits. A group of bondholders own the buildings and equipment.

Carroll of MRC said Delta Thermo Energy was vetted by bondholders, who were satisfied. “The[y] wanted a buyer who was well-financed, who could afford to come in and re-start the plant as soon as possible, who would be on-site operators, who would use the Fiberight technology, and who had experience in MSW,” he wrote in an email. “Delta Thermo Energy met all those criteria.”

As for the sludge, Carroll said the DEP permits for the Coastal Resources facility prohibit importing municipal solid waste.

Vallette recently heard from a knowledgable source that sewage sludge is not usually considered municipal solid waste, and that it would therefore be “a separate issue to determine.”

Another source confirmed the less-guarded fact that New York City has not sent sludge barges into international waters since 1992.

In a phone call with The Free Press, Van Naarden insisted the story was true.

“I guarantee you, they’re out there,” he said. “I don’t know what you’re reading. They go outside the 12-mile limit. So they’re in international waters, is what I understand. They have to get rid of it somehow.”