Last month, the Hartford City Council passed a resolution opposing any continued operation, refurbishment or redevelopment of a trash incinerator facility in Connecticut’s capital city. This signals an end to the injustice and ineptitude of burning mountains of trash on an urban riverfront. The city is rightly rejecting 30 more years of a dead-wrong technology that would sentence Hartford to economic despair and health disparities.
In 1986, the quasi-public Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority (now renamed MIRA for the Materials Innovation and Recycling
Authority), opened the mid-Connecticut waste incinerator in the city’s South Meadows. The facility has thrust on Hartford the brunt of municipal solid-waste disposal for approximately a third of the state’s towns.
According to the Energy Justice Network, siting facilities in low-income communities with a high percentage of people of color exacerbates health inequities – with the upshot for those living near such facilities being higher rates of cancer, respiratory ailments, birth defects and childhood diseases, as well as high blood levels of toxic dioxin.
Hartford residents noted increased asthma from the burning trash and the 300 to 400 daily trucks delivering solid waste from regional towns to the MIRA incinerator. This traffic also destroys city streets and requires police protection at taxpayer expense. A 2015 study within Hartford found that negative health effects are compounded by stresses such as poverty, especially for Latino males.
Economic Disadvantage vs. Development
The South Meadows incinerator sits on more than 90 acres along six miles of riverfront, yet Hartford cannot collect an estimated $600,000 in property taxes because it is a tax-exempt state facility. And MIRA has reduced the payment in lieu of taxes from the state by almost two-thirds.
Yet economic development and employment in the city’s South Meadows is desirable and viable, with rail, highway, and riverfront access. Hartford’s Planning and Zoning Commission envisioned a “Connecticut River Overlay District with … carefully planned, mixed-use, specific development … sensitive to the urban waterway… one of the city’s greatest amenities.”
Wrong Technology and Negligent Stewardship
The stated intention of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to restore the current facility to its historic capabilities is shortsighted. Although the agency in 2014 sought proposals for facility redevelopment, negotiations have stalled. A comprehensive agreement is not expected before October 2020. Meanwhile the South Meadows facility is rapidly deteriorating. Last autumn, Hartford residents witnessed illegal, smelly stockpiling of trash when both Power Block turbines at the MIRA plant failed, requiring expensive out-of-state emergency hauling. Recently, one failed again, necessitating more costly repairs.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration says a refuse-derived trash-to-energy process is highly inefficient and expensive, often driving municipalities into bankruptcy or bailouts. The federal agency regards incinerators as the most expensive way to make energy or dispose of waste. Consequently, waste incineration is being rejected in most of the United States.
In fact, incinerators can only compete by locking municipalities into long-term, monopoly contracts (e.g. MIRA’s 30-year plan), with rising fees but no means to opt out, Contracts often have clauses requiring from each town to deliver a fixed amount of waste or pay for the full amount contracted for – even if citizens reduce the amount of waste generated or divert some of it away from incineration.
Solid Waste Alternatives
Where, then, are incentives to reduce the mountains of trash? A comprehensive zero-waste paradigm also includes methods to divert textiles, electronics, food and yard waste, as nearby West Hartford has initiated. Yes, alternatives certainly exist.
Although leachate currently troubles the closed Hartford landfill, more modern landfilling at appropriate sites is considered by many experts to be cheaper in the long run and less environmentally problematic. Landfill waste can now be more contained and enveloped by state-of-the art membranes rather than dispersed into the air. It also remains fixed, not burned into toxins like ash from an incinerator. Landfilling, within a zero-waste pyramid, is clearly one option.
Another would be building smaller, modular waste facilities distributed throughout CT’s sparsely-populated areas. Such facilities could more readily respond to evolving solid-waste management technologies than a single, obsolete, urban behemoth.
Despite clear hardships and failing facilities in the South Meadows, state representatives have no “Plan B” for the region. Connecticut urgently needs strong leadership for solid waste management. A first step should be creation of a state commission of stakeholders and highly competent, non-conflicted researchers whose planning will consider all realistic short and long-term options, based both in well-documented best practices and a sense of environmental justice.
JoAnne Bauer is chair of Hartford’s Solid Waste Task Force and former chair of its advisory Commission on the Environment.