Courtesy: CT Green Bank

Three words — that was it.

A tiny three-word change, unnoticed by most people in the final revision of the waste bill signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont just before the Independence Day holiday, has the potential to up-end the longstanding mission of the Green Bank. That mission, according to the Bank, is “to confront climate change by increasing and accelerating investment into Connecticut’s green economy to create more resilient, healthier, and equitable communities.”

The change to the waste bill removes the words “municipal solid waste” from a list of materials that, when combusted, cannot be considered “clean energy.” In doing that, it effectively changes the Bank’s statute to allow it to fund waste-to-energy technologies like those used in Connecticut now. It was the closure of one such facility — the MIRA plant in Hartford — that precipitated the current waste crisis and the urgent need for legislation in the first place.

While the governor approved the legislation, he noted some of its shortcomings. The statute change was not among them.

But the change, made at the last minute and without public review, raises several questions, including how it happened and if it’s appropriate to even allow a green bank to help fund a non-green technology, never mind actually do it.

Legislative leaders said they don’t know who made the change, or why.

“The mission of the Green Bank is to confront climate change,” said Bryan Garcia, president and CEO of the bank since it was created in 2011. “Projects that are inconsistent with that mission are not likely to be supported by the Green Bank.”

Bryan Garcia, CEO of the Connecticut Green Bank

The Bank was the first state-wide entity of its kind in the country, among the first anywhere, and remains a world-wide model. It is quasi-public, with some of its board coming from executive agencies and the rest from outside government. The board actually has final say over all Bank projects.

Environmental advocates were far less diplomatic than Garcia.

“There is nothing green about incineration,” said Samantha Dynowski, who heads the Sierra Club’s Connecticut chapter, using more emotionally charged terminology for trash-to-energy systems, which do, indeed, burn waste. “Whether you call it trash-to-energy or advanced recycling or chemical recycling or gasification — it is dirty. It emits toxins and carbon monoxide, mercury and other contaminants. The Sierra Club is incredibly disturbed by this change.”

Another advocate wondered whether the Bank should now be called the Brown Bank.

And they decried some legislators’ enthusiasm for so-called new low oxygen/high heat technologies for burning waste — especially pyrolysis and gasification. Both have had only limited use and are controversial because of the pollutants they emit as well as their cost and reliability. Pyrolysis in particular has mainly been used to recycle plastic back into a synthetic fossil fuel.

There is nothing green about incineration.

Samantha Dynowski, CT Chapter, Sierra Club

Advocates broadly said the real solution should have been reducing the amount of waste coming through the system. Diverting food waste alone could have reduced the total load by a quarter. “Ideally we’re able to reduce and reuse until we can get down to be able to shut down even some of the incinerators that we have,” Dynowski said.

But most of the sections of the legislation that would have accomplished that were eliminated before passage of the waste bill.

What happened?

It’s a good question, but there’s no clear answer. There is, however, a string of events that may offer some clues to the Green Bank component.

We know that the three sections involving the Green Bank did not appear in any version of the 2023 waste bill — a governor’s bill that came through the Environment Committee as House Bill 6664 — until the very last version of the legislation. Those sections were never part of any public hearing process.

The sections added include one that changes the statute, another that allows the bank to issue bonds to finance any solid waste facility, and a third that doubles to $500 million the amount a certain type of bond the bank can issue.

The passage in the bill that shows the change in the Green Bank’s statute, removing the words “municipal solid waste”

So who added the statute change?

“I don’t know how it got in there and why it was in there,” said House Speaker Matt Ritter. Of those concerned about that change, Ritter said, “They should be.”

When asked whose idea it was to bring the Green Bank into this, Environment Committee Co-Chair Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, said “it was a combination of the House leadership and myself, looking for a potential revenue source for what we’re going to do going forward.”

But changing the statute? “It wasn’t me. Okay?” he said.

Garcia said he was “certainly surprised” to see the change.

It also helps to look back two years to 2021 when the legislature last made changes to the scope of the bank — which was founded strictly as a clean energy finance and investment authority. In fact, that was the Bank’s original name.

The 2021 change allowed the bank to take on “environmental infrastructure” funding and investment across six categories: Agriculture, land conservation, parks and recreation, environmental markets, water, and waste and recycling. The Bank has completed primers — essentially implementation guides for each category except waste, which isn’t expected until next year.

But Garcia was clear about what he thought would be appropriate — pointing to the two anaerobic digesters the Bank had already helped finance under its clean energy mandate. Digesters use a non-burning bacterial process to turn organic waste — mainly food scraps — into methane to produce electricity without releasing any of the gas. They also produce compost as a byproduct.

It specifically says in our statute that we cannot do that. So then what happened? They knocked out that part in our statute. They just wrote it out.

Bryan Garcia, Green Bank president and CEO

One of the digesters funded was Quantum Biopower — the state’s only grid-scale energy-producing anaerobic digester. The other was for Fort Hill Farm, the state’s first farm-based digester to produce electricity.

In February the Bank submitted written comments on this year’s bill. Garcia said the comments were simply to remind the legislature of the bank’s availability — specifically saying it “can be used to mobilize private investment for Connecticut’s sustainable waste economy.”

The comments also noted that fixing the broken waste system would “entail considerable capital investment, such as additional facilities to manage and process food scraps and other organic waste streams as well as the entire supply chain and infrastructure to facilitate the collection and separation of organics.”

No mention of waste-to-energy.

State Rep. Joe Gresko

While the word waste was used, Garcia said what he envisioned was financing things like food waste diversion, extended producer responsibility (EPR) measures in which manufacturers are responsible for end-of-life disposal of their products, and more anaerobic digesters.

“It’s waste and recycling,” Garcia said. ”Not waste and energy, but waste and recycling.

“We expressed ourselves in February that we can help on waste and recycling…. We’re imagining small, localized recycling centers.”

When word started filtering out a few weeks before the end of the session that legislative leaders had a replacement for the MIRA plant in mind, Garcia reminded them in writing that the bank’s statute specifically prohibited financing that sort of technology.

Whether that inadvertently provided a blueprint for how to fix that statutory inconvenience is unclear.

“It specifically says in our statute that we cannot do that,” Garcia said. “So then what happened? They knocked out that part in our statute. They just wrote it out. We were trying to be a resource for waste and recycling, but ended up becoming a legislative solution for waste and energy.”

The change also served as an unpleasant reminder of past legislative indignities against the Green Bank — principally funding sweeps that raided the source that provides the equity for the Bank’s investments.

The most egregious occurred in 2017, when more than one-third of the funds were syphoned to plug budget holes. (The legislature initially tried to take all of it.) The bank was forced to scuttle several projects when funders backed out — ironically including anaerobic digesters that were in the project queue, according to Garcia.

Legislators who were involved in this session’s waste bill discussions often opted for the word “desperate” to describe the situation they were in to come up with money to fund any of the many programs proposed in the original bill — from food waste diversion to EPR for packaging to an eventual replacement for the MIRA plant. Almost all of them were eliminated in the final bill.

“You know, they’re always going to come our way when they have a money thing,” said Lonnie Reed, chair of the Green Bank Board, who for many years was a state representative and co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee and is no stranger to the sausage-making of complex and controversial legislation. She doubted the statute change provision would have survived a public hearing had it been in the original bill language.

Lonnie Reed, chair of the Green Bank board

“Why didn’t they put it in the state budget?” she said, of funding to replace MIRA. “That tells you something in and of itself. If they care so much about that, it should have been there.”

“We did the best we could to try to figure out some things and we failed. I have acknowledged that it was the biggest shortcoming of the session,” Ritter said of the gutting of the waste bill. “I have owned that, even though I’m not the chair of a committee and it’s not my issue. It’s an issue that affects the entire state. My office spent considerable time trying to find solutions. And we fell short.”

But Ritter also represents Hartford and has been clear he doesn’t want another dirty trash-to-energy plant in the city.  And he posited that there was probably no community in the state that wanted one. “If this provision is utilized in some way where that happened,” he said of the statute change, “I do want to first of all say it’s a terrible idea.”

Then there’s the philosophical component.

If the project isn’t green, is it still a Green Bank?

Should the Connecticut Green Bank even be in a position to have to think about that?

“Absolutely not,” said Kevin Budris, advocacy director of the environmental group Just Zero. “The Green Bank is supposed to be funding green infrastructure, the types of projects that are going to protect our environment and our climate, rather than damaging our climate, and further polluting our environment. It’s entirely inappropriate for the Green Bank to fund a waste gasification facility, or any other facility that burns any type of waste product.”

Garcia, again, is diplomatic.

“As a mission-driven organization,” he said, “we’re always eager to help implement transformational public policy. We have priorities and a track record we’re proud of and know what we need to succeed.”

He said he’s always happy when the legislature sees the Green Bank as a solutions provider.

We’re looking for whatever way we can try to improve the overall environmental situation of the state with respect to solid waste. We’re not going to solve it by taking a purely ideological purist stance here.

Rep. Maria Horn, D-Salisbury

Reed underscored that desire to be helpful — but with a warning.

“We want to be helpful in ways that protect our mission, which I think is really key,” she said. “We are not a rubber stamp board.”

She also noted that any number of the bank’s private investors do it because they are committed to environmental investing. A less-than-green project might turn them off altogether.

And there is also some potential that the statute change could harm the bank’s standing for Greenhouse Gas Reduction Funds from the Biden administration through the Inflation Reduction Act. Those grants will be competitive for organizations and others, including green banks specifically. The bank is planning to apply for them.

But board member Adrienne Farrar Houël, who is also founder, president and CEO of Greater Bridgeport Community Enterprises and a member of the Connecticut Equity and Environmental Justice Advisory Council, said she had no issue with the statute alteration.

“I don’t think it is a change,” she said, noting the 2021 expansion included waste and recycling. And she further pointed to the fact that Green Bank itself had not fully figured out its role in the waste arena.

“There’s nothing to criticize yet. Because the [primer] hasn’t been done and the outlines or whatever kind of financing has definitely not been defined.”

Legislators, including those who generally back environmental interests, also said the urgency of the situation warranted the statute change.

Rep. Maria Horn, D-Salisbury, who co-chairs the Finance Committee and serves on the Environment and Energy and Technology committees called the situation “a red blinking light that we should have addressed, five, 10 years ago.”

“We’re looking for whatever way we can try to improve the overall environmental situation of the state with respect to solid waste,” she said. If it’s a cleaner solution than what exists now then she thinks it’s within the bank’s mandate. “We’re not going to solve it by taking a purely ideological purist stance here.”

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee, re-posed his own philosophical question.

“Should the Green Bank evolve to meet the needs of the state?” he said. “You could argue that its charter was circumscribed for a reason. Is that reasoning as important now as what the need is in the state?

“If the need is sufficiently critical, we should at least have the conversation.”

But one sentiment expressed by Gresko surfaced repeatedly.

“Just because they can do it, doesn’t mean the Green Bank will do it. So giving them the option was just giving them the option, and it wasn’t a mandate,” he said. “I’m not asking them to turn their backs on their mission.”

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.