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Trash redevelopment in Hartford reignites debate over environmental justice

MIRA Recyling Center Hartford
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
A local trash hauler dumps a load of single-stream recycling into the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) processing center in Hartford, Conn., to be inspected for contamination. The recycling facility is located near a burn plant that has incinerated trash in Hartford for decades.

Nearly 50,000 people live within two miles of a major trash incinerator in Hartford. In a few months, that garbage plant is slated to close. And as officials decide what’s next for the key piece of riverfront land, debate is focusing on a decades-old issue: environmental justice.

Think of environmental justice as environmentalism meets civil rights. And for Hartford, the movement historically focused on a big question, said Edith Pestana, administrator of the state’s environmental justice program.

“Why should I take your garbage?” she asked. “Is that what you think of us?”

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that Connecticut burns more of its trash than any other state in the nation. And state data show that trash-to-energy facilities, the spots where garbage is burned, are often zoned in poor areas with minority populations.

Those zoning decisions can have health impacts. A 2020 study from the Connecticut Health Foundation found that Black and Hispanic children in Connecticut were about four-to-five times as likely as white kids to go to the emergency room for asthma.

Pestana remembers when Hartford hosted an active landfill that became a flashpoint in the city’s environmental justice movement. First constructed in the 1940s, the spot took in garbage from surrounding towns, and it was a place “that had odors, that people had to deal with where they couldn’t open their windows in the summer,” Pestana said.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin recalls the history.

“For many years, Hartford not only hosted this trash-burning power plant. But also, an open-air landfill,” Bronin said. “It was the community fighting [for] years and years that closed that landfill and won that victory.”

That landfill closed more than a decade ago. Today, it’s visible as a big green hill just north of the city’s downtown off I-91.

But on the other end of town, the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority, or MIRA, continues to burn trash. Each week hundreds of trucks from dozens of towns drive into Hartford, dump their garbage, and MIRA burns it.

James Sánchez, a Democrat on Hartford’s City Council, said during a recent meeting of the Hartford Solid Waste Task Force, that “absolutely” raises issues of environmental justice.

“This is a city of minorities,” Sánchez said. “This is why we have that plant. Because in the past our minorities weren’t educated enough to protect themselves and keep this from coming in their backyards.”

MIRA trash-to-energy plant
Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
The Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority trash-to-energy plant in Hartford, Conn.

Environmental justice law seeks to rectify the historical inequities of such zoning decisions. In 2020, the state tightened its environmental justice regulations. And the bill, which had bipartisan support, looked poised to particularly benefit “distressed” communities like Hartford.

In addition to public notice, the revised state statute requires polluters to work out financial deals with qualifying cities that basically say, “You want to pollute here? Well, pay up.”

But MIRA told the Hartford Solid Waste Task Force last week that state environmental justice law has nothing to do with this situation.

“What you’re asking MIRA to do is to comply with a law that does not apply in this case,” said Peter Egan, director of operations at MIRA. He said as the incinerator gets older and is less profitable, MIRA is asking the state for permission to shut it down and turn the plant into a transfer station.

“There will be a significant reduction in vehicle traffic,” Egan said. “There will be no emissions from the three municipal waste combustors. And we are developing a facility closure plan in accordance with governing solid waste regulations.”

Still, MIRA said the proposed transfer station would host about 150 trucks each day. And the site, located right next to a major highway, would basically be a temporary dump, although MIRA said it will quickly move trash out and will control odors.

Normally, a permit to site a large transfer station in a community like Hartford would trigger an environmental justice review.

But in a July letter, the state DEEP agreed with MIRA, saying environmental justice law doesn’t “technically” apply because MIRA is already permitted and is looking to scale down its operations, not scale up.

Bronin wouldn’t say if he agreed with that assessment. But he said Tuesday he agrees with another part of the DEEP decision, that MIRA perform “meaningful” public outreach.

MIRA said it met with city officials and posted materials to its website and social media to educate residents about the proposed change. But Bronin said there’s been “very little discussion of the long-term plan.”

“But to be fair to MIRA, I don’t think they know what the long-term plan is,” Bronin said.

MIRA Recyling Center Hartford
Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
MIRA inspector Dan Heisler pulls out contaminants from a load of single-stream recycling at the MIRA intermediate processing center in Hartford, Conn. lf an incoming load of recyclables isn’t heavily contaminated with trash, it gets sent to a recycling center in Berlin where the materials will be sorted and then later sold or shipped out of state. Materials were sorted in the Hartford facility until the end of April 2021, when the operation was outsourced to the Murphy Road Recycling facility in Berlin.

Running parallel to all of these environmental justice discussions, said Tom Swarr, co-chair of the city’s solid waste task force, are the practical business realities of MIRA’s plan: re-permitting a large facility serving dozens of towns in a matter of months. MIRA said it wants to shut off its incinerator by next July.

Swarr, who is also an ad-hoc member of MIRA’s board of directors, said strong opposition from city leaders could scare off the private trash haulers MIRA needs to make its transfer station idea work.

“If I were a company coming into bid, and looking at the lay of the land, I’d want another site,” Swarr said. “I wouldn’t want to bank my bid on having that site available.”

“Getting through this process and having that site ready to go by next July, I don’t see that happening,” Swarr said.

Pestana, with the state EJ office, said even though the revised state EJ statute doesn’t technically apply, she sees more and more resistance to placing the burden of pollution on people in poor communities.

“I think it’s going to be much harder as time goes on to locate undesirable facilities in communities of color,” Pestana said.

But when the polluter has been around for decades, stopping its momentum is proving more difficult.

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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