For decades, millions of tons of trash have been put on a truck and shipped to the banks of the Connecticut River in Hartford.
There, inside an incinerator, trash from dozens of communities is burned and turned into power. But recent years brought problems to the plant, as age, mechanical failures and ever-changing energy market forces aligned to cause the plant’s operator to threaten permanent closure.
Now, after years of debate, the incinerators will shut off for good. The head of the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) announced last week that the Hartford “waste to energy” plant will close, at the latest, by July 1, 2022.
Earlier this year, MIRA’s board took the initial vote to close the plant and transform the location into a transfer station.
Tom Kirk, president and CEO of MIRA, which runs the plant, said the decision to close in July 2022 comes after the quasi-public organization terminated a redevelopment agreement when a number of financing options, including state subsidies and energy credits, fell through.
“It’s a very significant change in the way we’re handling our waste,” Kirk said. “We’ve landfilled almost none of our garbage for 30-plus years. To now be stepping backwards to a landfill-dependent solution … putting it in other states, is a disappointing development.”
MIRA carries contracts with 51 towns. Fifty of those contracts extend through 2027, which means that if the waste-to-energy plant is no longer operational, MIRA will have to figure out what to do with that trash.
And it’s a lot of trash. Between 600,000 and 720,000 tons of garbage goes to the MIRA plant in Hartford each year.
Kirk said the only available solution will be to transform the plant into a transfer station and send the trash to landfills. He said he’s confident that a revamped transfer station in Hartford could handle the large volumes of trash without burning it.
“We’ll be able to handle a good portion -- not 100 percent -- but a good portion of our customer waste, and the remaining waste will be picked up by private-sector transfer operations,” Kirk said.
“All of the waste will end up going out of state because there is no capacity here in Connecticut to handle it,” he said.
Kirk said towns will have the option “to exit if the price becomes uncompetitive.”
Staring Into The Barrel: Connecticut’s 'Waste Crisis'
When you roll your trash barrel to the curb, that trash, be it a half-eaten bagel or the detritus of a recent home cleaning frenzy, finds its way into a changing and often invisible waste economy.
“Connecticut is facing a waste crisis at this moment,” said Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “A lot of the traditional options that our state has relied on for disposing of municipal solid waste over the years are beginning to diminish. And they’re becoming more costly or unavailable.”
“The MIRA facility in Hartford is kind of emblematic of those trends,” Dykes said.
MIRA had previously asked for $330 million to help redevelop the plant in collaboration with Sacyr Rooney, a Spanish-U.S. consortium. In late 2017, that company won a state-initiated bidding process to redevelop the plant.
MIRA argued the subsidies were necessary to balance out otherwise unsustainable fees that the developer proposed as a way to finance the redevelopment plan.
But in July, Dykes wrote a critical letter rejecting that request, calling the plan’s ballooning costs and request for public subsidies “a bad deal for taxpayers across the state, Hartford residents, and the environment."
With the redevelopment now dead, Dykes said the DEEP is working with more than 70 towns across the state to reduce overall waste streams and scale up materials management.
The panel is investigating ideas like “pay as you throw” and recycling more food waste.
“When we surveyed all of the 74 towns that joined into this coalition earlier this year, the solution that folks were the most interested in is collection of organic waste, including food scraps and yard waste,” Dykes said.
Reducing waste streams has become critical for many towns, Dykes said, which fear rising municipal budgets will only get bigger if they have to send trash to out-of-state landfills.
“Increasing costs really pinching municipal budgets have really gotten a lot of folks to look at this as a priority,” Dykes said.
The often arcane world of state bureaucracy has hosted many of these discussions. Letters, committee meetings, and pointedly-worded media releases have all been a forum for back-and-forths about Connecticut’s trash future.
Dykes said the state wants to do more to educate the wider, trash-creating public about the magnitude of the crisis.
“I’m not sure that we’ve seen the average citizen understanding this crisis yet,” she said.
The decision decades ago to build around half a dozen waste-to-energy facilities did help the state to transition away from landfilling trash in Connecticut. An annual report from MIRA’s previous incarnation, the Connecticut Resources and Recovery Authority (CRRA), estimated that in 1992, the electricity produced at the plant was equivalent to burning 700,000 barrels of oil per year, according to the state office of legislative research.
But in recent years, domestic fracking has made natural gas a lot cheaper. State and federal energy subsidies turned more and more toward renewables like solar and wind. And the model of burning trash, while once held up as an innovative form of waste management, increasingly began to struggle to find its place.
Kirk said those market shifts meant his plant began to get a lot less money for the power it was producing. In response, MIRA raised so-called “tipping fees,” which are charges to dump waste at the plant.
“Our price has risen to the point where it -- probably -- is pushing some of our more price-conscious customers to other locations, other disposal locations,” Kirk said.
Then came mechanical failures.
In 2017, two turbines at the plant failed, causing tons of trash to pile up at the facility. The plant was offline for months.
Kirk said the MIRA plant is now in a position where it is being managed to “a safe and reasonable shutdown.”
But he said if something major breaks again, that shutdown could come sooner than the projected year and a half.
“If something like that were to happen next week, it’s likely we would not invest the funds to repair the turbine or whatever major component failed,” Kirk said.
“We would accelerate the shutdown and move to a transfer mode sooner,” he said. “But right now our plan is the end of the fiscal year 2022. And we expect that that will be the case.”