Area Towns Face Hike in Tipping Fees as Officials Debate 30-year Commitment to Trash Incineration

in In the Region/Topic: Garbage

The 51 member towns that take part in the Materials Innovation Recycling Authority (MIRA) will need to decide by May 31 whether to sign on to a 30-year agreement to continue incinerating municipal garbage at a starting rate of $145 per ton or to have that garbage hauled and landfilled out of state. 

The state legislature faces a related question this session with the introduction of SB 11, “An Act Concerning the Reliability, Sustainability, and Economic Vitality of the State’s Waste Management System.”

The legislation would set an annual waste reduction goal of 700 pounds per capita by 2022, and 500 pounds per capita by 2024; authorizes the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to solicit proposals for solid waste management alternatives and waste reduction programs anywhere in the state, and requires MIRA to submit a five-year plan by the end of 2021. 

If passed, however, the legislation still would not guarantee that the state would support trash-to-energy in the future. 

The authority’s trash-to-energy incinerator, located in the South Meadows section of Hartford, needs a $333 million renovation of the former coal plant’s two turbines to remain in operation.

But for that renovation to be affordable, the project will require either a significant investment from the state, or a majority of member towns to sign on to another 30 years of incinerating municipal garbage.

“We need to hear from our towns and from the legislature. If the answer is no, then we can’t continue to struggle. The plant is on the verge of shutting down already,” said MIRA President Tom Kirk on Wednesday. “We think they can tell us by the end of the session if they are willing to invest or not.”

Currently, the plant incinerates nearly one-third of the state’s garbage every year and buries the remaining ash in a landfill in Putnam. 

In just the last two years, sustained outages caused by deteriorating, outdated turbines have resulted, in each instance, in 750,000 tons of garbage being trucked out-of-state. 

Kirk said that if a decision isn’t made by May 31, the authority will resume hauling garbage out of state.

Reaching out to member towns

In early February, MIRA reached out to all of its member towns to have them sign on to a “conceptual agreement.” In other words, MIRA is asking towns whether they intend to continue with a trash-to-energy solution for municipal waste, even at a significantly higher cost than the current $85 per ton.

“The towns seem interested in participating because of the environmental advantages, but they are hesitant on the anticipated price,” Kirk said.

“I imagine we will sign due to the non-binding nature of the letter, and work to gather further information,” said Angus MacDonald, first selectman of Deep River. He balked, however, at the estimated $145 per ton tipping fee, which he said would have a “gigantic” impact on the town’s budget.

For many towns, it feels like there is really no other option than signing on to MIRA’s contract.

“Personally, I don’t feel like we have a lot of choices here, there just aren’t a whole lot of options that are environmentally sound,” said Lauren Gister, the first selectman of Chester. “If we transport our trash out of state there is the wear and tear on the highways, gas, our carbon footprint, the whole works. It’s like we are being held hostage by our garbage.”

Trash-to-energy reduces the volume that needs to be buried by about 30 percent and  reduces greenhouse gas emissions from a carbon-methane combination, to just carbon, said Senator Norm Needleman, chair of the Energy and Technology committee.

The energy the plant produces, however, is negligible compared to other sources in the state, said Lee Sawyer, the chief of staff for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Many of the southeastern Connecticut towns that are part of MIRA – including Essex, Chester, Old Lyme, Deep River and Old Saybrook – will be signing on to the conceptual agreement. The only town that appears solidly opposed is Hartford, which hosts the plant, and at 38,000 tons of garbage annually, produces as much as four other member towns.

Some, non-MIRA towns, including Stonington, have instituted a “pay-to-throw” plan where all residents are required to pay for each garbage bag of disposed waste.

But for MIRA towns, the current plan and the $333 million project cost, offers little overall incentive to generate less waste.

“The MIRA calculation of $145 only works if we have just as much trash. By being responsible and creating less trash, we might actually make it more expensive for ourselves,” Gister said.

Tipping fees

A reduction in tipping fees from the $145 per ton baseline would require state funding in addition to the participation of most current member towns.

Kirk said that MIRA was “reaching out to the legislature for them to consider additional revenue associated with some of our energy such as a power purchase agreement or a Millstone-style pricing arrangement such as a ratepayer subsidy.”

This potential 12-cent ratepayer subsidy proposed by MIRA would amount to a more than $800 million investment from the state over the course of 30 years — that’s more than two and a half times the cost of the renovation itself.

“The cost of the construction is much less than the $800 million they’re requesting. What they’ve suggested is that in order to bring tip fees to a competitive level in the future they will need this much more money,” Sawyer said.  “In terms of that scope of investment, we really have the obligation to look at all alternatives.”

An impossible deadline

If the legislature does pass SB 11, it will start a process to evaluate alternatives at the close of the legislative session, Sawyer explained.

But passage of the bill would not guarantee support from the legislature of the MIRA renovations.

“We want to explore ways of investing in alternatives before making significant investments in the waste-to-energy infrastructure,” Sawyer said. “It could be that this is the best option, but when you’re talking nearly a billion dollars in investments from taxpayers, it’s best not to rush it.”

MIRA has also floated the idea of a general obligation bond that would be paid back by state taxpayers, or a regulatory change that would allow the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to require municipalities to follow the state’s policy on waste disposal which prohibits out-of-state landfilling.

That last option is the least likely, said Kirk.

“A regulation change would make it so you can’t landfill outside of the state if there is capacity in the state, taking away any alternative from the towns,” Kirk said. “But, a number of very influential towns like Greenwich and Stamford already send their waste to landfills outside of the state so are unlikely to vote for this.”

Alternatives to trash-to-energy

Although the state is unlikely to set aside funding for the MIRA plant this legislative session, Sawyer said that the urgency of the situation is not lost on DEEP or the governor.

“The legislation SB 11 calls for the launch of an RFP process this calendar year. We would want to conduct that process expeditiously because the MIRA plant is on borrowed time as we have learned from their recent extended outages,” Sawyer said. “MIRA and DEEP all agree that time is of the essence.”

The first and best alternative in terms of the environment and cost, Sawyer said, is waste reduction. That includes pay-to-throw programs, but also anaerobic digesters which would remove food scraps from the solid waste stream and improvements to the recycling system.

According to Sawyer, some towns that have implemented pay-to-throw programs have seen as much as a 40 percent reduction in waste.

That reduction, as Chester selectman Thomas Englert suggested, may be in part from people throwing their garbage into the woods, rather than paying by the bag.

The problem for MIRA, as Gitter pointed out, is that less trash would make the plant restoration project less feasible.

“We recognize that one-third of the state’s municipal solid waste goes to MIRA,” Sawyer said. Even if their trash were to be reduced in volume, “without sufficient capacity provided by the trash-to-energy plant, it may result in significantly more trash being sent out of state to landfills.”