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As Hartford exits trash collaborative, costs for other towns could go up

A trash-to-energy plant in Hartford, Connecticut.
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
A trash-to-energy plant in Hartford, Connecticut.

Hartford’s mayor said this week that the city will no longer send its garbage to a major state-owned trash plant. It’s a move that could strip the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority of its biggest municipal customer and drive up disposal costs for residents in surrounding towns.

Right now, about 50 towns send their garbage to the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) in Hartford. The quasi-public was set up decades ago to keep some trash out of landfills and to allow towns to pool their waste and cut down on disposal costs.

But the agency’s trash-to-energy plant in Hartford is old. MIRA wants to close the incinerator and turn the site into a transfer station in the coming months, but plans have moved slowly with a private vendor to make that transition.

Now the agency faces another hurdle: losing its biggest municipal customer, the city of Hartford. If approved by the City Council, Hartford would stop sending its garbage to MIRA and instead enter into a contract with a private vendor, Murphy Road Recycling, in July.

“We decided this was the right time to make this change for two reasons,” said Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin during an interview this week. “One, the simple reason that we could get a better deal for Hartford taxpayers. And, two, there’s an awful lot of uncertainty when it comes to MIRA’s future and the future of this facility. This facility is falling apart.”

Hartford officials said the shift away from MIRA could save the city over $400,000 in the first year. MIRA has been plagued with outages in recent years, and the agency’s president, Tom Kirk, acknowledged on Tuesday that the facility is in trouble.

“We continue to experience unplanned outages,” Kirk said. “From an efficiency standpoint, a cost standpoint, a reliability standpoint, the plant continues to struggle.”

But Kirk said as big customers jump ship, costs for towns left behind go up.

“There is a financial impact,” Kirk said. “With Hartford leaving, all the remaining towns will pay more per ton to get rid of their garbage. Because there are less tons to spread those fixed costs over.”

MIRA recalculates its “tip fee” for member towns annually. Each year, municipalities are granted an “opt out” period to break their contract with the quasi-public. The agency is expected to announce its revised pricing structure in the coming days.

In anticipation, a number of towns are reevaluating if staying with MIRA makes sense.

Naugatuck Mayor Pete Hess said this week his town is cutting ties with the quasi-public. Town leaders from Newington, Wethersfield and Glastonbury also all said via email they’re considering sending their trash to the private sector.

“The Town Council is considering it along with the other towns,” said Wethersfield Town Manager Bonnie Therrien in an email. “Everyone is exploring their options and then our Council will make a final decision.”

Newington, which issued an RFP alongside Wethersfield and Rocky Hill for cheaper trash disposal options, is also struggling with what MIRA’s slow death means for their budget.

“It’s a difficult situation, and it’s not going to get any better. It’s going to get more expensive,” Newington Town Manager Keith Chapman told members of the Town Council in January. “Eventually, [almost] all of the trash is going to have to go outside the state. To the Midwest, probably, or further.”

“We anticipate we’re going to have an increase coming into next year’s budget,” Chapman said.

Chapman said in an email this week that “the Town is weighing its options as to how we will move forward. No decision is made yet.”

As more garbage flows into the private sector and the state’s capacity to handle all that waste shrinks, it’s not immediately clear where the trash will go. But city leaders and MIRA’s Kirk agree that more and more of Connecticut’s waste will likely be trucked to out-of-state landfills.

“There’s no short-term solution here. We are going to be sending a million tons of garbage every year to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, wherever,” Kirk said. “Hopefully that’s a wake-up call and a call to action, if you will, for state leadership … to build and maintain the infrastructure necessary to manage the waste we generate here.”

Copyright 2022 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit Connecticut Public Radio.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter at WNPR. He covers science and the environment. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of WNPR's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.
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