The 48 towns that have their trash handled by MIRA must decide by the end of the month whether to sign a five-year contract to stay with the agency or find another option.
As the Materials Innovation and Recovery Authority, or MIRA, prepares to shut down its trash-burning power plant, it is transitioning into a new role as a broker between its member towns and private trash haulers.
Cost will be the major factor towns consider when weighing their options, but geography could determine whether the member towns even have other options to consider.
Rocky Hill Town Manager John Mehr said Rocky Hill, Wethersfield and Newington saw larger towns in the area find options other than MIRA for trash collection – including Hartford, which agreed to contract with Murphy Road Recycling to handle its trash late last year, the Hartford Courant reported.
With the decision looming to opt in or out of staying with MIRA, the three towns banded together and decided to put out a request for proposals to see what options they could find.
Mehr said the towns have received six bids to haul their trash, and that the proposals would mainly involve taking the trash out of state. Now that the town staffs have reviewed the proposals, the town councils will have to decide by the end of the month whether to take one of the bids or remain with MIRA.
While there are other options for towns in the Hartford area, there are fewer in other parts of the state. Along the shoreline, Old Saybrook only had one other company interested in taking on the town’s trash, said First Selectman Carl Fortuna, who also serves on the MIRA Board of Directors.
“It was a similar cost,” Fortuna said. “Extremely similar. And given that we have an organization [MIRA] that the town has dealt with for 30 years, that we trust, it’s difficult for me to say we’re going to switch.”
On Fortuna’s recommendation, the Old Saybrook Board of Selectmen voted Tuesday morning to opt in to the MIRA contract for five years. For the first year, the town will pay a tip fee of $111 per ton – up from the current fee of $103. Each year of the five-year contract, the town will be able to opt out if the price goes above a certain point.
The future of MIRA after its trash-burning energy plant closes down is uncertain. Fortuna said he doesn’t know if the quasi-public agency will exist for the entire five years of the contract. But MIRA appears to be stable for now, and it’s much easier to evaluate its financial situation than it would be for a private contractor, he said.
“It’s my obligation to make sure the trash goes away,” Fortuna said. “And I’m not saying we won’t explore other options in the years ahead. But for this year, a decision needed to be made, and we went with MIRA. I think we’re in a good situation with them, at least for 2023.”
Revenue generator to broker, MIRA offers diminished value
While the exact date hasn’t been set, MIRA will close its aging trash-burning energy plant in the South Meadows some time after July 1. The closure has been looming for years, but no long-term solution has emerged for how to handle 500,000 tons of trash every year once it can no longer be burned.
Lawmakers are considering two similar proposals to form a group to study the future of managing waste in Connecticut – something that MIRA President Tom Kirk said is a positive and long overdue step.
It took years to build trash-burning plants in the past, and it would take even longer today considering health and environmental justice concerns, Kirk said. And that’s after the years it could take for state policymakers to decide what they want to do.
“There’s some challenges there that will consume a lot of years,” Kirk said. “In the meantime, the garbage has to go someplace, so we will be depending on the welcome of our neighboring states. So I hope we don’t do anything to tick them off so they close their doors.”
MIRA is negotiating a temporary solution for its member towns: trash from the Essex transfer station will go to a trash-burning plant in Preston, and trash from the Torrington and Watertown transfer stations will be trucked to a landfill in eastern Pennsylvania.
The agency hasn’t yet figured out what to do with trash from Hartford-area towns that is currently trucked directly to the South Meadows plant, Kirk said. An earlier proposal to have that trash shipped to the nearby Murphy Road Recycling Center, then off to Ohio, is no longer on the table, he said.
The agency was already expecting it would need to keep the plant open for several weeks after July 1, because it expected its contractors would have delays in trying to get trucks and equipment ready by then.
The inability to find another option for the trash being shipped directly to Hartford has added to that uncertainty, pushing the MIRA board to approve a budget that would allow it to keep running the South Meadows plant for another year.
Kirk said continuing to run the plant, which has been plagued with mechanical and staffing issues in recent years, is not ideal. He doesn’t expect that it will run for another year, but it could be needed for several months after July 1 as MIRA tries to find another option, he said.
Also unclear is how much waste MIRA will still be responsible for after towns opt out. He said MIRA is encouraging towns to weigh their options, and he acknowledged that the value MIRA provides is far less without the South Meadows plant.
For years, the quasi-public MIRA has been able to use revenues from the plant to subsidize the trash-hauling service, keeping costs down for member towns. Without those revenues, MIRA is just a broker, negotiating with private haulers on behalf of the towns. The towns could still benefit from negotiating together if their combined volume of trash leads to lower rates, but the value is less substantial without the power plant revenues, Kirk said.
“Cost is always an issue, and towns should look at what’s in their best interest,” Kirk said. “Are the inherent additional costs of operating as a quasi-public agency – with its reporting and FOIA – worth it? If they’re just interested in putting it on a truck and sending it somewhere, maybe the private sector can serve a town’s needs better.”