Gov. Ned Lamont outside the closed MIRA trash-to-energy plant, laying out an approach to reducing Connecticut's reliance on out-of-state landfills. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

The administration of Gov. Ned Lamont took its first steps Tuesday towards articulating a policy for disposing of the 860,000 tons of trash Connecticut must annually ship out of state since the closure in July of a major trash-to-energy plant in Hartford.

Standing outside the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority plant that once processed one-third of the state’s waste, Lamont and his environmental chief, Katie Dykes, outlined an approach requiring new disposal facilities and dramatic reductions in how much waste is generated by residents and businesses.

Both elements — reducing the waste stream and siting one or more facilities using technology to be determined — pose complex and politically fraught challenges for the second term of a governor whose first major policy attempt, a resumption of highway tolls, ended in failure.

“Our plan contemplates that we think we can reduce that 860,000 tons per year of export by 40% through a combination of programs. The first is an ‘extended producer responsibility program’ for packaging,” said Dykes, the commissioner of energy and environmental protection.

Simply put, that means pressuring Amazon and other drivers in the American economy to rethink and reduce packaging or take financial responsibility for disposal, a cost likely to be passed onto consumers. The state also would work to remove food waste from the refuse stream, a demand on consumers and businesses.

[RELATED: With trash plant closing, CT rethinks waste policy]

The state currently has relatively small-scale demonstration programs on removing food scraps, but it will have to have replicate them at a much larger scale to achieve the administration’s goal of waste reduction.

Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, co-chair of the legislature’s Environment Committee, said the administration is asking Connecticut to wake up and think about trash collection and disposal, a major governmental function that generally works invisibly.

“There is no magic place for your garbage to go. Put it out on the curb — I know it’s somebody else’s problem now, but it’s going somewhere,” Gresko said. “And we have to acknowledge that and address it as we go forwards and wrap people’s brains around the idea of there is no magic place.”

There are only places like Keystone Sanitary Landfill in Pennsylvania, a three-plus hour trip by truck from central Connecticut on I-84, and Tunnel Hill Reclamation Landfill in Ohio, served by rail cars that can unload 100 tons of waste every 15 minutes. 

What the administration outlined could take a decade to achieve, but the governor said the challenge is to set a responsible and sustainable course for the decades to follow. That means assessing the best available technology for disposing of waste, which will include seeking proposals from the private sector.

“We’re gonna lay what the rules of the road are in terms of the waste stream, so the bidders can come in, so we know what the next generation of technology is, what’s the next generation of a trash-to-energy plant,” Lamont said. “And I think it’s going to be a multi-year process.”

In the meantime, trucks and trains will take the trash west.

“But in the long term, our goal needs to be to regain self-sufficiency, which we define as the ability to manage our waste within our borders, in order to provide for more predictable costs for businesses and residents, as well as opportunities to increase the sustainability of how we manage our materials,” Dykes said.

The announcement Tuesday established that the Lamont administration is opposed to placing a new trash plant on the site owned by the trash authority known as MIRA, which lost a fight two years ago to win state support for an overhaul of a plant opened decades ago under the aegis of its predecessor, the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority.

“When this facility first opened as a waste to energy plant, it represented the leading edge of technology,” said Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, a MIRA board member. “It was the environmentally responsible way to dispose of trash. Over the last decade or so, this facility had become increasingly obsolete, increasingly unreliable.”

The governor’s plan is geared to Bronin’s hope of the state eventually taking control of the MIRA site to remediate more than a century of environmental abuse — a coal-burning plant preceded the trash-to-energy operation — and offer it for redevelopment or recreational access to the Connecticut River.

“I think it’s the final word on the use of that site for a waste-to-energy facility,” said Mark Daley, the president of MIRA.

With a closed landfill visible from I-91 in the city’s North Meadows and the MIRA plant in its South Meadows, the city has done more than its share in handling the region’s waste over the past century, Dykes said.

Bronin appreciated the sentiment.

“The closure of this site this past summer presents us with both a significant challenge as a state and huge opportunities,” Bronin said. “And I’m deeply grateful to the governor and the commissioner and their teams for seizing the moment to make the most of those opportunities.”

Daley said MIRA already has spent $28 million on environmental remediation of the site, but much more will be needed. MIRA also is responsible for the North Meadows landfill site, which is capped and topped by a solar array that powers the city’s adjacent public works yard.

The authority will continue to accept trash at its transfer stations in Torrington and Essex under contracts with its remaining members that run through 2027. Hartford and many others already have opted out, contracting with private companies that ship out of state.

MIRA has financial reserves of about $55 million, and the Lamont administration would like the money to go to remediation. But Daley said there are contractural claims by the member municipalities that must be resolved.

Whatever is chosen as the next-generation technology, Lamont said, he expects the task of finding a location for the new facility will come during his second and most likely final term in office.

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Mark PazniokasCapitol Bureau Chief

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.