The Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) facility in Hartford, December 19, 2019. Photos by Cloe Poisson Cloe Poisson
The Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) facility in Hartford, December 19, 2019.

When the trash-to-energy plant in Hartford’s South Meadows broke down in November 2018, garbage started piling up inside the facility’s two cavernous storage areas. And kept piling up. And piled up some more.

The refuse was accumulating because operators could not hire enough trucks and drivers to haul it to out-of-state landfills.

By January 2019, the facility was jammed floor-to-roof with thousands of tons of trash, and officials were days away from a lose-lose decision: either start storing garbage outside in the parking lot, or tell towns not to send any more trash.

“It was nerve-wracking,” said Thomas D. Kirk, president and CEO of the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority, known by its acronym MIRA, which oversees the facility. “Thank God we didn’t have a fire.”

What saved the day was getting the plant repaired, partially in January and fully in March of 2019, so it could again burn garbage. The catastrophic breakdown in 2018-19 was neither the first nor the last time the aging and failing plant went on the fritz, but it was the most serious failure.

Was it a harbinger, a dress rehearsal for a major trash calamity?

It’s possible. Bad as it was, the 2018-19 breakdown did not trigger a sense of urgency to address what many insiders consider an impending crisis in the state’s solid waste management system, said MIRA ad hoc board member Thomas Swarr, a retired United Technologies engineer who lives in Hartford.

“Is the plan to sit back and wait for a complete disaster, with trash piling up in the streets, before anybody does anything?” Swarr said.

After years-long efforts to upgrade the plant with either private or public funds failed, the MIRA board voted late last year to shut the plant down by July 1, 2022, and truck about 500,000 tons of trash a year to out-of-state landfills. With the approximately 400,000 tons already being shipped out of state, more than a third of the state’s 2.4 million tons of garbage will be buried in another state. Hundreds of thousands of tons of construction and demolition debris, which is not counted or treated as municipal solid waste, also are shipped to out of state landfills by private contractors.

What is the plan?

MIRA went out with requests for proposals in the spring for landfill space and hauling, and the bids are in. Though he couldn’t line up enough trucks in 2018, Kirk was “cautiously optimistic” he could do it this time. He said three years ago he was looking for trucks on a short-term basis; this time it is on five-year contracts. He appears to have been right. Kirk told town officials during an online meeting on Oct. 14 that he’s received enough bids to transport and bury MIRA’s trash, possibly as far away as Alabama or Michigan.

He said terms are being negotiated but forecast a tipping fee $114-$119 a ton in the first year, going to $139-$146 in the 5th year, the lower number if all the towns agree not to opt out of the agreement. The present fee is $105 a ton.

But even with an agreement, Kirk is still not out of the woods. There is the matter of keeping the plant going until June 30. “It’s held together with duct tape and chicken wire,” said Swarr, “and could fail catastrophically.”

Kirk concedes that the plant is “on its last legs; old, tired and ready for retirement.”

And there is the challenge of keeping the skilled plant operators on staff through the closing date. Facing the prospect of unemployment, they could jump to other jobs.

As it tries to meet these challenges, MIRA appears to be unraveling. Four of its eleven regular board members have resigned as of Sept. 30 this year. That presents problems because many important issues require a supermajority of eight board votes — something of a challenge with only seven members. The quasi-public agency has long had trouble attracting board members; this time “we may have to send up a red flag” to state leaders, said Kirk. But maybe not. When Kirk announced the board shortage at the Oct. 14  meeting, Thomaston First Selectman Ed Mone offered to serve on the board.

The Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) facility in Hartford, December 19, 2019. This is one of two General Electric steam turbines dating back to 1950 that generates 45 megawatts of electricity.

Why did others leave?

“If we’re not going to create a solution and just truck waste out of the state, there’s no reason for me to be there,” said John Adams, one of the board members who resigned. He is a former Granby first selectman and a geologist who works for a firm that deals with contaminated properties.

Also, MIRA’s revenues have taken a beating in recent years. Electricity it once sold for 12 cents a kilowatt hour now goes for two to three cents. China’s decision in 2018 to ban the import of most residential recyclables turned a profit center into a loss center. And its four jet-powered generators, backups for when the grid is at peak demand, are being phased out. The jets once produced $16 million in payments to MIRA. Now the number is closer to $6 million and will be down to zero in 2023.

As a result, tipping fees, what towns pay to have their trash picked up, have increased by 35% in the last two years.

Finally, three towns, Roxbury, North Branford and East Hartford, left the agency this year, leaving it with 48 members. East Hartford’s departure was notable because its mayor, Marcia Leclerc, who is not seeking reelection, was one of the MIRA board members who resigned. She said she got a better deal, one that would save her town $104,000 a year. Hartford, the host community, has sent out a request for proposals for its trash hauling. “We have to consider all options,” said Mayor Luke Bronin, like Swarr an ad hoc MIRA board member.

The plan after 2027? There isn’t one.

The trash plant’s woes suggest to Swarr, Bronin, Kirk, MIRA board chair Don Stein and others that the state has to take a greater role in the management of its solid waste. “The state has some great ideas, but they don’t legislate them,” said Stein, who is also first selectman of Barkhamsted.

Swarr wonders if solid waste management should be structured as a public utility. “There are some natural monopolies. This may be one of them.”

“Our regional and statewide waste disposal crisis is reaching its final stages,” said Bronin. “The plant is obsolete and unreliable and will soon be unavailable. As a state, we have to recognize that a financially viable, environmentally responsible program has to be a public-private partnership requiring resources beyond the capacity of any town.”

Such a partnership was what officials thought they were getting in 2014.

Ash and dust-covered mechanicals show their age in the power block facility where trash is converted to energy at the MIRA facility in Hartford’s South Meadows. Shredded trash is fed into combustion boilers providing steam for turbines that produce electricity. The building, which dates back to the 1920s, was originally a coal-burning facility.

Old coal plant

An irony in the return to putting garbage in a hole in the ground is that landfilling was what the state was trying to get away from when it created MIRA’s predecessor agency, the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, or CRRA, in the 1970s. Landfills, especially back then, pollute groundwater and emit the potent greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide.

Turning trash into electricity was the way to go, and six trash-to-energy plants were created in the state (five remain). In the South Meadows, officials retrofitted an old coal-burning power plant into a trash-burning facility (though for years it burned some coal with the trash). One unfortunate aspect of the conversion was that officials chose a method called “refuse derived fuel,” meaning that the trash was shredded before it was burned, as opposed to “mass burn” plants, where trash is pushed directly into the boiler.

Kirk said at the time the refuse derived method was thought to encourage more recycling. But that turned out not to be the case. All it did was add millions of dollars of cost.

Nonetheless, the regional program moved ahead. In 1982, some 70 towns signed 30-year contracts to have their trash burned and turned into electricity.

Things went well enough for two decades. The agency did hit a low point in 2001 when it loaned $220 million to energy giant Enron, which shortly afterwards went bankrupt. Only about three-quarters of the money was recovered, a serious waste of public funds.

As that decade wore on, it was becoming clearer that the sprawling brick and steel trash-to-energy plant was in need of overhaul or replacement. When the first contracts were up in 2012, only about 50 towns signed up for new 15-year contracts, the ones that end in 2027.

The General Assembly attempted to solve the problems in 2014. The solons passed a statute that among other things directed the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, DEEP, to identify a “provider of solid waste management services” to redevelop the and modernize the plant and implement new diversion practices to reduce the amount of trash going into the plant. MIRA would then negotiate an agreement with the private partner.

The law also changed the name of the agency from the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority to the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority, apparently to suggest a new start and a new emphasis on diverting and reusing waste materials rather than burning or burying them.

To that end, the new law also directed DEEP to update the state’s solid waste management plan by 2016 to include a strategy for “diverting, through source reduction, reuse and recycling, not less than 60%” of the state’s solid waste by 2024, about twice the current diversion level. The plan was updated, but the goal now seems well out of reach.

In any event, DEEP identified a contractor, a Spanish-U.S. entity, the Sacyr Rooney Recovery Team to upgrade the plant and the recycling facility. However, MIRA and Sacyr Rooney could not reach a financial agreement acceptable to the member towns.

Kirk said it was going to take about $330 million to update the trash-to-energy plant and recycling facility and make other improvements. It would have required the towns to pay tipping fees of $145 a ton, up from about $85 a ton, and sign 30-year contracts. The towns weren’t interested. Because Sacyr-Rooney needed the trash from all the towns to generate adequate revenue, and towns can opt out of the program, the company said it needed guarantees, Kirk recalled.

MIRA went to the state for the $330 million, and the state rejected the request. There was discussion of a smaller amount to keep the plant going until 2027, but that also went nowhere. DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes said the 2014 statute envisioned private, not public, funding.

As DEEP viewed it, MIRA was just trying to perpetuate the trash-burning status quo and, said Deputy Commissioner Betsey Wingfield, “$330 million is a lot of money for the status quo.” In retrospect, asking a private entity to put up hundreds of millions, but then let MIRA control the program, as the statute envisioned, may have doomed the deal, Adams said.

So it fell through. “After four years, we were back to square one,” said MIRA chairman Stein.

Seeing no other alternative, the MIRA board announced that it would shut the plant down by July 1, 2022 and truck the trash to out-of-state landfills.

That wasn’t the end of it.

Starlings hunt for food scraps on a pile of newly dumped garbage on the tipping floor at the MIRA facility in Hartford’s South Meadows. An average of 2,500 tons of garbage are dumped and processed at the trash-to-energy plant daily.

Test of wills

DEEP was not happy with this decision. DEEP officials had been trying to push MIRA to embrace the new era of waste management that focuses on recovering and reusing materials and keeping them out of the waste stream. As CT Mirror environmental writer Jan Ellen Spiegel has reported, there is a growing movement to get food wastes out of landfills or incinerators.

MIRA, on the other hand, has largely kept its focus on solving the immediate problem, first by trying to keep the trash plant going and then by shipping waste out of state.

That was the gist, more or less, of the plan of operation MIRA submitted to DEEP in July 2020. Dykes rejected it, saying it “represents a false choice and a bad deal for the taxpayers and … the environment.“ Kirk disagreed, saying in a letter to Dykes that choices other than restoring the trash plant or shipping to out-of-state landfills “simply do not exist.”

Another dispute arose over whether MIRA needed a new permit, or a modification to its existing permit, to turn the trash-to-energy plant into a transfer station. The department initially resisted the idea, but has since signaled it could approve a permit modification to allow transfer until 2027. MIRA applied for a permit modification on Sept. 29.

If the modification is approved, the state will go back to the past, to a solution — dumping in some other state’s land — that nobody is happy with.

“Shifting waste from a poor urban community (Hartford) to a poor rural community (where many out-of-state landfills are located) hardly seems like a win for either the environment or social justice,” Swarr wrote in an email earlier this year. “It certainly is not consistent with the state’s Comprehensive Materials Management Strategy.”

And, as he and others have observed, sending scores of heavy trucks each day to distant landfills sends more pollutants into the atmosphere.

That 2016 solid waste plan says landfilling should only be a “last resort.” It also calls on the state to manage its own waste and not send it elsewhere.

By 2027, there needs to be a plan in place to adopt the next generation of materials management infrastructure, and it is far from clear that MIRA is the agency to prepare that plan. Two current or former board members fault the agency for weak planning.

“MIRA has done a poor job of long term planning,” said Leclerc.

“I get that we have to solve the immediate crisis, but there should have been a parallel effort to plan for the next phase,” said Swarr.

The state’s solid waste plan says MIRA’s “focus on operating existing facilities rather than developing new ones” may prevent MIRA from leading the charge to the future.

Perhaps surprisingly, Kirk agrees. He said if the state is to follow its solid waste management plan and manage its own waste, it will have to make significant infrastructure investments. He said it doesn’t appear that MIRA has the statutory authority or capability, never mind the resources, for this task.

What’s coming

It’s impossible to know what 2027 will look like, whether MIRA will still exist, whether waste management will become a public utility, whether the 80-acre trash plant site will be returned to Hartford for remediation — no small task — and redevelopment. A Hartford solid waste task force chaired by Swarr last year advocated for the creation of a network of “smaller, distributed facilities to receive municipal waste (and) employ state-of-the-art separation technology to recover organics and potentially recyclable materials.”

“These facilities would be a necessary complement to efforts to expand source separation of food waste and recyclables to absolutely minimize waste sent for final disposal. “

When Dykes rejected MIRA’s plan of operation last year, two environmental groups, the Energy Justice Network and the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice, applauded the decision and urged the department to eschew incineration entirely.

Incineration is “the most expensive and polluting way to manage waste or make energy — dirtier than coal burning and worse than direct use of landfills,” wrote Sharon Lewis of the Connecticut Coalition and Mike Ewall of the Justice Network.

Kirk vehemently disagrees. “Everything (in that sentence) is wrong,” he said. He said air-cleaning technology has improved, and the emissions of many trash-to-energy plants including Hartford’s are monitored around the clock for compliance with pubic health standards.

Still, most people in the field, Kirk included, support more reuse and recycling to keep materials our of incinerators or landfills. And that may not be the best reason to recycle.

“In most cases, the biggest environmental benefit of recycling comes not from avoiding incineration and landfilling but from substituting recycled materials for virgin resources in production,” said Reid Lifset, an industrial environmental management expert at the Yale School of the Environment.

Environmentalists Lewis and Ewall urged Dykes toward the Zero Waste philosophy — an approach that seeks to “maximize recycling, minimize waste, reduce consumption and ensures that products are made to be reused, repaired or recycled back into nature or the marketplace,” according to the DEEP website.

The state has made real progress in some of these areas. One pillar of Zero Waste is getting producers to take more responsibility for their products at the end of their useful lives. This has led to recycling programs for mattresses, electronics and paint. Plus, the Metropolitan District Commission collects household hazardous wastes in Greater Hartford.

The Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) facility in Hartford.

The General Assembly this year strengthened the bottle bill, increasing the deposit from five to 10 cents and expanding the types of bottles covered. On the subject of glass recycling, on Sept. 1, residents of 14 Western Connecticut municipalities served by the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority began separating all “food-grade” glass containers — food jars, liquor and wine bottles, beverage bottles — from their mixed single-stream recycling bins and bringing them to local drop-off centers.

This not only separates recyclable “good glass” from non-recyclable or “bad” glass, it increases public involvement in waste management. The public has rarely been heard on this topic.

“Trash pickup is a service most people expect government to perform, period,” said Adams. But public interest has been known to spur state action.

Dykes has also convened a coalition of more than 80 towns to explore ways to reduce the amount of waste the state generates and improve reuse, recycling and organics collection, among other measures. For example, the group is studying unit-based pricing, or pay-as-you-throw, in which residents are charged based on the amount trash they generate, the goal of which is to encourage more recycling and less throwaway trash.

The department recently announced a $5 million grant program to support local and regional unit-based pricing and organics recycling efforts. A half-dozen communities including Middletown, Meriden and West Haven are developing organics recycling programs.

“We’re getting some traction. There are really positive things happening,” said deputy commissioner Wingfield.

In addition to the state programs, there is considerable innovation underway in the private sector, in such areas as anaerobic digestion (Quantum Biopower, Southington); materials sorting (Van Dyk Recycling Solutions, Norwalk); and energy conversion (Green Waste Energy, Greenwich), among others. In April, MIRA shut down its recycling facility — which, like the trash plant, is in dire need of work — and contracted its recycling to Murphy Road Recycling, which is building a $30 million, state-of-the-art recycling facility in Berlin.

For all of this, the state is still a home-rule mishmash of local and regional trash collection and recycling programs and policies. Some towns are paying more than others, although often residents don’t realize it because the cost is baked into their property tax bill.

Perhaps the question is whether to continue the incremental improvements or go bigger, as California did when it passed a law requiring residents and businesses to recycle organic waste, beginning Jan. 1, 2022. All jurisdictions must provide organic waste collection services.

Organics make up about a third of Connecticut’s waste stream. Removing them, along with more robust recycling, would greatly reduce, or possibly eliminate, the need for out-of-state transport.

Zero Waste, said Swarr, is “an aspirational goal that is physically impossible to achieve. While the initiatives are absolutely necessary, they will not eliminate the need for disposal infrastructure.”

As he sees it, the impending closure of the Hartford trash-to-energy plant, as well as the various innovations under way, offer a remarkable opportunity for state leadership.

“Think about it, he said. “DEEP could step back and reimagine the entire system.”

Tom writes about urban and regional issues for CT Mirror, including planning, transportation, land use, development and historic preservation. These were among his areas of interest in a 45-year career as a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. Tom has won dozens of journalism and civic awards, and was elected to the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2016. He is a native of New London, a graduate of The University of Notre Dame and the University of Connecticut School of Law, and is a Vietnam veteran.