Steam billows from a tall stack near the power block facility at the MIRA trash-to-energy facility in Hartford’s South Meadows. Cloe Poisson

The last several months have exposed the deep-rooted issues that communities of color have faced for generations. Ongoing police brutality and the militarized response to protests and civil unrest have shone a light on the systemic racism and injustice that permeate every layer of our society. At the same time, COVID-19 has disproportionately sickened and killed people of color whose communities are home to polluting facilities and terrible air quality.

Refineries, coal power plants, and heavy industry have long been purposefully placed in low-income communities and communities of color. The waste industry is no exception: nationwide, 80% of waste incinerators are located in environmental justice communities – neighborhoods that are disproportionately burdened by multiple sources of pollution and socio-economic vulnerabilities.

Here in Connecticut, three out of five trash incinerators are located in environmental justice communities, including the two largest incinerators in Hartford and Bridgeport. Overall, more than two-thirds of Connecticut’s waste is burned in communities of color. Burning trash anywhere is inherently problematic, but especially so in communities already saddled with legacies of pollution. Incinerators like those in Hartford and Bridgeport emit many times more dioxins, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxides, mercury, and lead than a comparably sized coal-fired power plant.

For more than 30 years, the Hartford incinerator has taken in waste from more than 50 towns and cities across the state and belched these pollutants into Hartford neighborhoods. This is a prime example of the institutionalized racism inherent in Connecticut’s waste system — communities of color bear the brunt of this pollution, while wealthier white communities are spared these sickening toxins, and can turn a blind eye to what happens to their trash.

Thankfully, the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (or MIRA) voted on May 28 to scrap plans for a $333 million upgrade to the Hartford incinerator. MIRA is the quasi-public organization that operates the incinerator. This decision means that unless the state steps in to bail out this aging polluter, the incinerator will finally shut down once and for all.

This must be allowed to happen. By refusing to bail out the incinerator or replace it with another polluting facility or a massive transfer station, Connecticut can take a small but important step toward fixing its racist and unjust pattern of burning trash in communities of color.

But even if the Hartford incinerator does shut down, there are still four others in Connecticut that will continue to emit harmful pollutants and threaten public health. All the more reason that the state should take this opportunity to implement zero waste reforms. If Connecticut can reduce its waste upfront and divert all organic and recyclable material, it will not need to rely on incinerators in communities of color, or build massive transfer stations in those communities to ship waste out of state, or resort to fake “solutions” like gasification or pyrolysis (alternate forms of burning trash).

Real waste reduction solutions support local jobs, cost less money than incineration, protect public health, and disrupt the injustice inherent in large polluting facilities like the Hartford incinerator.

Connecticut’s waste is 33% food waste and other organics: Connecticut can ban all of this from the waste stream (like Vermont has) and invest in large-scale composting and anaerobic digestion. Another 40% is paper, plastic, glass, and metal: Connecticut can implement aggressive recycling reforms and bans on non-recyclable materials to reduce and divert these materials. Pay-as-you-throw programs, where residents are charged according to how much they throw away (just like a water bill or gas bill), can support these reforms and incentivize waste diversion.

Hartford is among the Connecticut communities hardest hit by COVID-19.  Structural and institutional racism, particularly with respect to the location of polluting facilities like the Hartford incinerator are largely to blame. With the shutdown of the Hartford incinerator, Connecticut now has an opportunity to implement waste reforms that protect rather than oppress its communities of color. But only if the state finally listens to what these communities have been saying for decades and stops burning trash in their neighborhoods.

Kevin Budris is Staff Attorney, Zero Waste Project Conservation Law Foundation/Providence, RI.

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