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With MIRA's Future At Crossroads, Hartford Says 'We've Already Shouldered Enough Of The Burden'

Cloe Poisson
Connecticut Mirror

When the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority announced plans to close its trash-burning plant in Hartford by July 2022, the agency said it would turn off the incinerators and transform the site into a transfer station for garbage. But conversations with the state appear to have stopped those plans, which could mean that when the plant shuts down, hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage may no longer make their way into Hartford.

MIRA’s idea was this: If they can’t burn trash, they wanted to convert their trash-to-energy facility into a transfer station. That’s basically a staging area for trash, where it gets compacted and ultimately shipped elsewhere for disposal. 

But those plans got complicated. 

“Things did change a little bit,” said Tom Kirk, MIRA’s president. “It’s clear now that we don’t expect to be able to turn the South Meadows facility into a transfer station. … We’ll be redirecting the garbage to other disposal sites, to be determined.”

“The garbage won’t be coming into Hartford,” he said. 

Kirk said his agency initially asked the state if it could use existing permits to transfer garbage from its more than 50 member towns once MIRA’s incinerators go offline. 

But Betsey Wingfield, deputy commissioner for environmental quality at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said state regulations won’t allow MIRA to do that. 

For one, she said, the agency would likely need to add equipment like compactors and balers if it wanted to run a transfer station at South Meadows, and all that would require paperwork. 

“That modification to their process would require either a modification to their existing permit, or potentially, a new permit,” Wingfield said. “There’s a couple of different avenues, but I think that time is tight to actually get that in place by July of 2022, which is when MIRA says they’re going to shut down the facility.”

Right now, MIRA takes in more than 500,000 tons of trash at its plant on the banks of the Connecticut River. 

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said Monday he would like that land to be put to better use.  

“It’s just not possible that burning trash is the highest and best use for riverfront land that’s at the intersection of two major highways,” Bronin said. “What needs to happen is that facility, over the long term, needs to be decommissioned. It needs to be cleaned. It needs to be remediated. And it needs to be repositioned for economic development.”

Right now, it’s unclear how long that process would take or who would pay for it. 

“The remediation of a site like that is massive, it’s expensive and it would take many, many years to do,” Bronin said. “It may be many years, it may be a decade or more, before you could use that site for development.”

Kirk echoed the uncertainty about how much it would cost to either mothball or shut down the South Meadows plant at a meeting of MIRA’s board of directors in mid-December.

“There are stakeholders that will have an interest in that decision and will be very vocal about what MIRA’s alleged responsibilities are in that regard,” Kirk told board members. “I think it’s safe to say that the towns do not believe they have any responsibility.”

“Safe to say there is no money for it,” Kirk said. “That we can say with certainty.” 

DEEP’s Wingfield said MIRA has yet to make any specific requests to the state for funding support since announcing its plans to close the Hartford facility next year. 

“MIRA’s plans as going forward aren’t specifically clear, nor do they have a specific ask from the state,” Wingfield said. “We’re willing to work with MIRA, but there’s nothing specific that’s on the table right now.”

But leaders in Hartford do have a specific vision for MIRA. They want it out of the city.

“Hartford no longer wants this facility there. We’ve already shouldered enough of the burden for the region when it comes to trash,” said Hartford city Councilman James Sánchez, a member of the city’s Solid Waste Task Force, which is exploring the future for the region’s trash after the MIRA plant closes. 

Clarence Corbin, Hartford’s former director of public works and the task force co-chair, said the group hopes to work with other towns and speak with a united voice about what comes next after MIRA’s incinerator shuts off. 

“I think the core of this is to come up with a non-combustion burn plant, and come up with technologies that are environmentally sensitive,” Corbin said. “The old facility was a dumping ground … no town wants to take someone else’s problems and spread that among the citizens.”

Kirk said MIRA is not “actively considering” building another transfer station in Hartford or elsewhere in the state.

“It’s not our preferred way forward,” Kirk said. “Short of purchasing an existing facility, anything we do would involve a certain amount of [time] that wouldn’t support our immediate needs to handle the waste of our customers in the near future.”

On March 16, MIRA leadership will meet with member towns to discuss the future of the Hartford facility and outline potential waste disposal options for municipalities going forward. Hartford’s Solid Waste Task Force will meet again Thursday, March 11 at 4 p.m. The meeting is virtual and open to the public. 

Corbin said the city, region and state all need to work together to find a long-term solution to the state’s looming waste crisis. And, he said, they need to work quickly. 

“Watching this plant go from barely functioning to now being dismissed, and not having an alternative, it’s disturbing,” Corbin said. “Somebody’s got to know how we got into the scenario and do something about it.”

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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