As Hartford Shutters Trash Incinerator, Connecticut Towns Go Their Own Way


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As Connecticut moves ahead with plans to close Hartford’s incinerator, thousands of tons of trash will be trucked out of state rather than burned on the south side of the city, and more than half of the towns that have had their trash hauled to the aging MIRA plant are opting instead to contract with private haulers.

The 28 towns opting out account for about 80 percent of the trash sent to MIRA, and include some of the largest towns, including Hartford.

MIRA President Tom Kirk said the large exodus of business is in line with projections and should not further add to fees paid by the remaining member towns. But the change still signals a major shift in waste management in Connecticut, as the state is forced to reckon with what to do with a million tons of trash once burned in Hartford’s South Meadows.

Hartford – which opted to switch to South Meadows-based Murphy Road Recycling – accounted for about 85,000 of the roughly 420,000 tons MIRA hauls. Other large towns like Newington, Glastonbury, Wethersfield, Bloomfield, Rocky Hill, Torrington and Naugatuck also opted for private haulers.

MIRA plans to shut down its incinerator later this year and ship the 70,000 tons of waste it will still be handling either out of state or to another trash-burning plant in eastern Connecticut.

MIRA’s predecessor was established in 1974 to provide a capacity for getting rid of trash in a market where that capacity didn’t exist, Kirk said. Now, there is still a shortage of capacity for dealing with that trash within Connecticut’s borders, but there is a market for exporting it to landfills in other states.

That means towns have other options – some of them more competitive now that MIRA won’t have the revenues from its trash-burning plant to subsidize its trash-hauling service. 

MIRA collects trash from 48 member towns, that have it delivered to one of four locations: transfer stations in Essex, Torrington and Watertown, or directly to the South Meadows plant.

Almost all of the towns that deliver to the Watertown station or directly to Hartford have opted out, said Kirk, including Hartford. Of the 285,000 tons a year that are delivered directly to the plant, only a handful of towns with a total of 12,600 tons of trash elected to remain with MIRA. 

Trash from the Watertown and Torrington stations will be trucked to a landfill in Pennsylvania, but with almost all of the Watertown-area towns opting out – only 3,000 of the 39,000 tons now delivered to Watertown will remain with MIRA according to Kirk – the Watertown transfer station will likely close. But Kirk held open the possibility that the remaining Hartford-area trash will be shipped to Watertown instead of the South Meadows plant.

“It’s a very expensive operation [to run a transfer station], there are a lot of fixed costs, from loading equipment to staffing, etc.,” Kirk said. “So unless there are enough tons and enough revenue to justify those fixed costs, it’s very hard to justify operating a transfer station.”

The Torrington transfer station also saw a significant portion of its intake opt out, including the town of Torrington, Kirk said. Out of the 52,000 tons being delivered there, 21,000 tons remained with MIRA.

The picture was drastically different at the Essex transfer station, which handles trash from smaller towns in the lower Connecticut River valley, including Essex, Chester, Deep River and Old Saybrook. Only one town in the region opted out – Old Lyme – which has contracted directly with Essex transfer station operator CWPM to handle its trash at a lower cost.

Essex First Selectman Norm Needleman said his town opted to remain with MIRA, but would not commit to staying for five years. With the small amount of trash that comes into the town transfer station, there is a small cost for the town to bring its trash to the MIRA transfer station just a few hundred feet away. If the town paid to truck it somewhere else, that would be a different story, Needelman said.

“It didn’t make sense for us to jump out at this point,” Needleman said.

Needleman, who is also a state senator and co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee, said the state was taking a “massive step backwards” by sending its garbage to environmental justice communities out of state because it’s no longer acceptable to keep sending into Hartford.

Needleman said lawmakers are looking to form working groups to come up with an actual plan for dealing with Connecticut’s trash. That could mean different ways to reduce the amount of waste going into the trash stream, enhanced recycling, more anaerobic digesters to process food waste, and more capacity to burn trash, Needleman said.

“I don’t like to see our trash sent to another state,” he said.

Kirk said Connecticut only has the capacity to deal with about 1.4 million tons of trash a year, and it generates about 2.5 million tons. Whether MIRA sends trash from the Essex transfer station to the Covanta trash-burning plant in Preston, or Old Lyme sends its trash there, there is only so much the plant can take before it has to push some trash somewhere else, he said.

“It’s kind of like squeezing a balloon – if you push more tons into Preston, it’s going to push more tons out that have to find a home someplace else,” Kirk said.

That means that about a million tons of trash are going to find their way out of Connecticut. 

Maybe in a few years anaerobic digesters will have enough capacity to take on more trash, suggested Kirk, and people will get better at recycling, or maybe something new will come up – but at this point he said those solutions all seem like “wishful thinking.” 

“A million tons [of trash] are going west and south,” Kirk said. “It doesn’t matter where your tons go, the state will depend on a million tons of capacity somewhere else.”