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Billerica landfill reborn as solar plant

A former Billerica landfill so contaminated that it was designated a federal Superfund site has been given new life as a clean-energy producer that will provide millions of dollars in revenue for the town.

Urban Green Technologies recently completed a 6-megawatt solar electricity plant on a 40-acre portion of the former Shaffer landfill, a three-year venture that faced myriad legal, regulatory, and engineering challenges.

Consisting of 20,000 solar panels and associated equipment, the plant will, on average, generate electricity to power about 1,200 homes. The facility is owned by UGT Renewable Energy 7, a legal entity created by Urban Green Technologies for the project.

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“It was a complicated deal to negotiate . . . several parties were involved,” said Town Manager John C. Curran. “But the end result is the town is going to realize tax revenue on a site that was previously tax-delinquent and generating no tax revenue for decades.”

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UGT Renewable Energy 7 has agreed to pay the town the $400,000 principal of the approximately $1 million in back taxes owed, according to Curran.

The company will make annual payments in lieu of taxes totaling $2.96 million over 25 years. Curran said the town opted for that agreement because of concerns that the state may adopt legislation barring municipalities from generating tax revenue from solar power sites.

The approximately $15 million project has been embraced by federal and state environmental officials as an example of how to revive former hazardous waste sites.

The Pond Street landfill is part of an overall 553-acre area called Iron Horse Park that was designated a Superfund site in 1984. The Superfund program aims to clean up hazardous waste sites that have been determined to pose a threat to human health or the environment.

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The old landfill, which operated for at least three decades, closed in 1986 and was later given a protective cap in a cleanup funded by about 40 companies that the US Environmental Protection Agency identified as responsible parties.

“The Shaffer landfill . . . has been put to good use,” EPA regional administrator Curt Spalding said in a statement. “The old landfill went from an unusable space to a nearly 6-megawatt solar plant that will provide the town of Billerica with both revenue and clean energy. This is exactly the kind of innovative reuse that is possible on old hazardous waste sites.”

The developer has agreed to provide Billerica with energy credits that will provide a 10 percent discount on some of the power that it purchases from the regional grid.

Additionally, as part of the complicated negotiations that led to the project, the town reached a settlement resolving longstanding claims by the federally designated responsible parties that Billerica share in the cleanup costs.

The EPA did not include Billerica on the list of responsible parties, which are some of the principal businesses that deposited or transported waste to the site when it was a landfill, and two Shaffer family trusts that own the land, according to Robert C. Kirsch, the attorney representing the responsible parties except for the trusts.

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But Kirsch said the responsible parties claimed the town had operated the landfill for years and as such should share in the costs. Though privately owned, the landfill was used at first for municipal waste, but later also accepted commercial waste, he said.

Curran said the town realized it had to address its liability, and the project offered a way to do that while minimizing the cost. Under the deal — to be filed soon in federal court — Billerica agreed to pay the responsible parties $1.5 million over 20 years, well below its potential liability of $5 million. Curran said the town will cover that cost through its revenue from the site.

“It’s a really good deal for the town, because we erased that huge liability and did it without putting up any money up front,” he said.

Kirsch said the responsible parties will benefit because the lease revenue they receive from the developer will help offset some of the $25 million he said will have been spent over 25 years to clean up, maintain, and monitor the site. The cleanup was completed in 2003.

The project received the approval of both the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Protection, both of which said the plant would not disturb the landfill cap, according to Don McElroy, remedial project manager for the EPA’s New England regional office.

Robert Berman, president and chief executive of Urban Green Technologies, said Massachusetts has become a key market for his Chicago-based company because of its favorable policies and welcoming attitude toward solar projects.

He said the Billerica project proved more difficult than first imagined, but he praised the various participants — including the town, the responsible parties, state and federal regulators, and National Grid — for helping bring it to fruition.

“After working for three years on permitting, design, and construction, we are proud we can show this first-rate project to the world,” he said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.