MIRA facility viewed from the Connecticut River (Credit: Google Maps 2019)

With No Easy Alternative, Advocates Call for Equity in Managing State’s Waste

in Solid Waste and Recycling

For the last 26 years, hundreds of diesel trucks and a steady stream of smoke have greeted the residents – and commuters – in south Hartford each day.

The trucks — carrying trash from 49 other towns — are headed for the Materials Innovation Recycling Authority (MIRA)’s waste-to-energy plant on Maxim Road near the Wethersfield line.

“The community has been fighting MIRA before it existed, fighting it for 26 years,” said Edith Pestana, director of the Environmental Justice Program for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) and a resident of Hartford. “We’ve been talking about toxic waste and race for years and nothing has changed in the U.S. in minimizing the number of waste facilities in environmental justice communities. They still bear the burden of the industrial facilities.”

As defined by DEEP’s Environmental Equity Policy, environmental justice communities are areas that “bear a disproportionate share of the risks and consequences of environmental pollution.” 

Hartford, and the 49 other towns that make up MIRA including Old Lyme, Essex and Old Saybrook, are currently negotiating a plan to renovate their outdated waste-to-energy facility, but with a price tag estimated at $333 million, the authority’s president has said that it would likely require state assistance or other outside funding for MIRA’s member towns to approve the deal. 

“The community has been fighting MIRA before it existed, fighting it for 26 years,” said Edith Pestana, director of the Environmental Justice Program for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) and a resident of Hartford.

Nationwide 80 percent of the 72 operating trash-to-energy facilities are in low-income communities or communities of color, according to a 2018 report by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA). GAIA is an alliance of grassroots efforts worldwide that work toward finding alternatives for waste management. Connecticut Citizens for Environmental Justice, based in Hartford, is a GAIA-affiliate. 

Repairing or replacing these incinerators has become a dilemma across the country.

“Essentially what we found in the report was that these incinerators are just really in trouble. Not only are they really old and sort of coming to the end of their lifespan, but contracts are coming up with the city they are in,” said Claire Arkin, communications coordinator for GAIA. “Cities are facing a choice, either to invest and fix it or transition away from waste burning.” 

Many cities have chosen to close their plants. In 1930, more than 700 trash incinerators were operating across the country. By 1990 that number had dropped to just 186. By 2000 only 104 incinerators were in operation. And by 2010 just 90, according to GAIA. 

Proponents of the plant, such as MIRA President Thomas Kirk, argue that this waste-to-energy plant is still the best way to dispose of the trash because it produces smaller amounts of greenhouse gases than any available alternative and that it’s likely the only economical solution for disposing of Connecticut’s trash without transporting it out of state.

In 1930, more than 700 trash incinerators were operating across the country. By 1990 that number had dropped to just 186. By 2000 only 104 incinerators were in operation. And by 2010 just 90, according to GAIA. 

“The plant is there now,” Kirk said. “To move it would be extraordinarily expensive, and it would be wasteful to consider that. That’s not to say that we don’t understand and empathize with their desire to not have that noxious use in downtown Hartford, the South Meadows. But it’s there now and the decision to site it there was made for valid reasons 100 years ago, and we’re living with that decision today.”

Kirk said that MIRA is “gauging” individual town’s thoughts on the plant deal and that he hopes for the Connecticut General Assembly to consider supporting it in their next legislative session.

Kirk said it was an “unfair and inaccurate complaint” to say that the plant’s emissions were not properly cleaned or managed.

“The Hartford facility in particular was listed as one of the dirty dozen of emissions. It emits carbon monoxide among many other harmful chemicals which have been linked to human health impacts that are not distributed equally,” Arkin said

“The plant is built with state-of-the-art air pollution emissions control,” he said. “It is well operated, well run, and tightly monitored and examined by DEEP with continuous emissions monitoring, which means every second a sample is being taken from that stack and being ensured that it meets the strictest standards of air control by the state.”

The MIRA plant, however, was labeled as one of the 12 worst incinerators across the country in terms of emissions, in GAIA’s report. 

“The Hartford facility in particular was listed as one of the dirty dozen of emissions. It emits carbon monoxide among many other harmful chemicals which have been linked to human health impacts that are not distributed equally,” Arkin said.

While 50 communities send their waste to MIRA, primarily Hartford bears the burden of hosting the facility, although Kirk said that the plant’s smokestacks are constructed to distribute emissions over an area of more than 20 square miles.

“We recognize that the folks living in Hartford aren’t environmental engineers and aren’t familiar or knowledgeable about what goes into operating it. They see a lot of steam going into their communities often. They see a lot of steam, but it’s essentially low level clouds. The emissions are extraordinarily clean, and we can assure them their health is being protected, but the facility meets all of the standards — the extraordinary strict standards set by EPA and we’re prepared to defend those results against any comparable plant.”

“The tricky thing is that the communities in which incinerators are sited are impacted by other facilities too, and those are not taken into account when local jurisdictions are setting admission standards,” Arkin said. “The emissions can be at the state level of what can be emitted, but that’s not taking the cumulative into account. These communities are burdened by all our pollution.” 

Kirk said that the science and engineering behind the plant and emissions can be complex, which can lead to public misunderstanding.

“We recognize that the folks living in Hartford aren’t environmental engineers and aren’t familiar or knowledgeable about what goes into operating it. They see a lot of steam going into their communities often. They see a lot of steam, but it’s essentially low level clouds. The emissions are extraordinarily clean, and we can assure them their health is being protected, but the facility meets all of the standards — the extraordinary strict standards set by EPA and we’re prepared to defend those results against any comparable plant.”

Kirk said that the alternatives to waste-to-energy plants for Connecticut towns would likely entail trucking the garbage out of state to landfills in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. He said that as landfill trash decomposes it emits greenhouse gases such as methane.

“If we were to bury this waste in a landfill,” Kirk said, “say in Ohio, the emissions from the waste that was buried, particularly in terms of methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas would mean that the impact on the environment in terms of greenhouse gas is more accurate from that waste than from recovering the energy in a trash to energy plant.”

He continued, “A trash to energy plant is a net reducer of greenhouse gas for that reason. That doesn’t mean there’s no emissions, but there’s less emissions associated with it than if you put it in a landfill.”

How does this impact air quality?

Jaimeson Sinclair, director of the engineering division of Connecticut’s Bureau of Air Management, said that waste-to-energy plants likely contribute the most to smog and ozone precursors of any of the state’s stationary sources of emissions, although this doesn’t count cars, trucks, and other vehicles.

But Sinclair said that no single source of emissions determines the air quality of an area, but developers of stationary sources are not required to study the ambient air surrounding their facilities.

“Generally speaking, the concentration of certain pollutants in the area near the plant would be higher than they would be if the plant didn’t exist, but it would not necessarily be higher than another area where a plant doesn’t exist because it depends on what things are going on in that area,” Sinclair said in a Monday interview. “Obviously, a pristine area with no traffic and no industrial activity, etc., would have way higher air quality than a community where the trash-to-energy plant is located.”

Sinclair said that urban areas historically have had higher pollution because they’ve been host to factories and mills and because cities also tend to be transportation hubs receiving the large amounts of pollutants emitted by large trucks, high numbers of cars, and for port cities like New Haven or New London, large boats.

“Generally speaking,” Sinclair said, “there is a higher burden of pollution in our urban environments because typically our urban environments are legacy industrial areas.”

“It’s not that their emissions have grown or their emission controls have degraded,” Kirk said. “It’s that the other sources have all shut down … It’s the exact same emission, it’s just that so much else has gone away and this is the last man standing.”

Kirk agreed that waste-to-energy plants are likely the largest contributors of emissions among stationary sources in the state, but he said that this is a result of other facilities and major factories shuttering and coal power plants switching to less-polluting natural gas.

“It’s not that their emissions have grown or their emission controls have degraded,” Kirk said. “It’s that the other sources have all shut down … It’s the exact same emission, it’s just that so much else has gone away and this is the last man standing.”

“I would live near that plant,” Kirk said. “I have lived down the street from that plant earlier in my career. We are disposing of this in environmentally sound manner. That is the responsible thing to do with the trash that we cannot recycle. It’s the best way to deal with our garbage. We’re happy we do that here in Connecticut. It’s the right approach. It’s unfortunate that it’s not understood to be the preferred environmental solution that it truly is.”

Kirk said that MIRA’s smokestacks, which are over 200 feet tall, are designed to distribute the gases from the plant over a large geographic area rather than into the immediate surrounding community.

“The stack and the equipment is designed for dispersal over large areas,” Kirk said. “The dispersal would impact larger areas, with the sources miles away. There’s really no emissions impact at ground level in Hartford. It’s counter-intuitive, but the Hartford residents are more affected by the Bridgeport trash-to-energy plant than they are by the Hartford plant.”

Sinclair said that waste-to-energy plants also tend to emit hazardous air pollutants like dioxins, lead, and mercury. These pollutants are regulated by state government.

“We require [plants] to control to the best possible levels of those pollutants, but those pollutants are being emitted in the community which the source is located,” Sinclair said. DEEP regulations require smog and ozone precursors to be released at the lowest possible rates, regardless of cost, and polluters are required to purchase credits from facilities that are retiring or reducing emissions, Sinclair said.  

Other pollutants may be held to a less strict standard called the “best achievable level,” Sinclair said, based in part on cost and in part on the broader impacts of minimizing emissions. “A lot of times when you’re controlling one pollutant you may be creating a pollutant in another media,” he explained.

The current proposal

The term sheet negotiated between MIRA and the Sacry Rooney Recovery Team pays Hartford, as the plant’s host community, $4 million. Kirk explained that the figure was mandated by Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and specified in the original bidding process.

“The board [of MIRA] is filled with first selectmen and they all understand the difficulty of having a facility like this in their boundaries that doesn’t pay property taxes,” Kirk said. “Nobody’s volunteering their town to put the facility here. It’s understood, the headaches of having a significant facility that doesn’t pay property taxes so there’s a lot of comfort with a generous host fee or payment in lieu of taxes.”

“Nobody’s volunteering their town to put the facility here. It’s understood, the headaches of having a significant facility that doesn’t pay property taxes so there’s a lot of comfort with a generous host fee or payment in lieu of taxes.”

MIRA’s predecessor agency CRRA (the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority) also had an agreement to make annual payments of about $4 million to Hartford as a host community, but that agreement was tied to the ash landfill in Hartford. That ash landfill closed a decade ago. Since that time, the authority has paid Hartford less and with less consistency. Last year, MIRA paid Hartford about $1.5 million.

If the term sheet is signed by all of the member towns, the refurbishment will include updated equipment for cleaning and filtering the plant’s emissions.

Alternatives

According to MIRA, the alternative to renovating the incinerator is an out-of-state landfill. And last winter when the plant was shut down for essential repairs, waste was hauled to Pennsylvania and Ohio. 

“There is a group of advocates looking for landfill, but where is that going to be? In a poor community,” Pestana said. 

According to Tom Swarr, a MIRA board member and resident of Hartford, a landfill is the last resort in the waste hierarchy. 

“The reality is that there aren’t a lot of options,” Swarr said. “The cheapest solution in the short term is a landfill, but they’re not going to take our waste for the next 30 years.” 

According to Arkin, however, the ‘landfill is worst’ narrative is incorrect. 

“From a toxin perspective, burning it is by far the worst option,” Arkin said. “There has been a very strong narrative that has been pushed by the industry, that our members, who have been fighting incinerators for decades, have been working to amend. Their communities breathe in the consequences of that narrative.” 

“The reality is that there aren’t a lot of options,” Swarr said. “The cheapest solution in the short term is a landfill, but they’re not going to take our waste for the next 30 years.” 

According to GAIA, it’s not simply a question of whether to burn or bury the solid waste.

“When we talk about burning or burying, we’ve already kind of failed. How do we reduce the waste we are creating in the first place,” Arkin said. “There are a lot of really exciting movements that are addressing the root causes of waste such as additional charges on to-go containers, mandating that all restaurants use reusable foodware and so on. We have moved so far away from the way we did things before, it’s time for elected leaders to protect communities from the kinds of disposable products.” 

Essentially, GAIA suggests moving toward a zero-waste infrastructure, but recognizes that overnight these changes aren’t possible. 

“In the intervening time it’s important to look at the main causes of waste, do an audit of what is ending up in the landfill or incinerator and we need to try as hard as possible to separate out what can be composted or recycled,” Arkin said.