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Operators of MIRA's Hartford facility now say plant could burn trash until 2023

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

A state-owned garbage incinerator was supposed to close by July. But now that a potential deal with a private company to transform the site into a transfer station appears dead, leadership at the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority has approved a budget allowing the burn plant to operate for one more year.

Tom Kirk, president and CEO of MIRA, said the budget authorization “doesn’t mean we’ll run it a full 12 months. But it does mean we would continue to run it for some period of time.”

How long, exactly, remains unclear.

“A July 1 date where we, essentially, turn the lights off … was probably never an absolute,” Kirk said. “I, personally, always expected we’d be a few weeks, maybe even a couple months past that date in the best of possible worlds.”

But for MIRA right now, the best of possible worlds is a long way off.

The quasi-public’s Hartford site, which annually burns hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage from nearly 50 towns, has been plagued with staffing shortages and mechanical failures in recent years.

Hartford has signaled its intent to stop sending trash to MIRA, and other towns are considering opting out of their contracts.

But the agency still needs to honor contractual obligations with dozens of towns to manage trash through 2027. And if the plant suddenly closes due to a catastrophic failure similar to one that happened in 2018, thousands of tons of garbage will suddenly have nowhere to go.

One solution MIRA has floated for months has been turning its Hartford burn site into a transfer station. The plan was pitched like this: starting July 1, the incinerator turns off and the site becomes a temporary staging ground for trash.

But Kirk said the agency was “struggling” with a request for proposals to do that in Hartford due to supply chain issues. He said discussions with a private vendor, Murphy Road Recycling, to manage and transfer waste coming into MIRA’s Hartford facility “have not moved forward following original outreach last month,” adding he was “not optimistic” about finalizing a contract.

In a statement, Murphy Road Recycling said it “offered a comprehensive proposal” to accept MIRA’s waste at the company’s nearby Hartford facility.

The company said it also “proposed to dispose of MSW [municipal solid waste] delivered to MIRA’s Watertown and Torrington transfer stations using at least 90,000 tons of nearby waste-to-energy capacity. Our understanding is that MIRA will not be moving forward with our proposal at this time.”

The shifting timelines at MIRA have caused confusion among some state leaders.

Deputy Speaker Mary Mushinsky (D-Wallingford) raised the issue last week with Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes during a public hearing.

“We were discussing this yesterday in the Energy and Technology Committee, and there was some confusion over whether MIRA will close July 1 of this year. Or July 1 of next year,” Mushinsky said. “I’m not sure everybody in the public or the General Assembly is aware of the looming deadline.”

Dykes told members of the environment committee that she wasn’t in a position to comment on the closure date.

“I think that’s a question that the MIRA board or MIRA leadership would be best positioned to respond to,” Dykes told Mushinsky. “We don’t sit on that board.”

Kirk said by email Monday that “there is not a formal closure date established by resolution.”

What’s next for MIRA?

Eventually, everyone agrees, the MIRA plant will close. But right now, Dykes, lawmakers and even MIRA’s Tom Kirk aren’t sure exactly when or how.

“If we’re able to pull this all together … sometime shortly after July 1 we would suspend combustion operations and move everything out by truck or train,” Kirk said. “We’re just not certain when that exact date’s going to be.”

But if the deal with Murphy Road Recycling falls apart, Kirk said by email that the agency has “a few ideas” for what’s next, but “nothing so much as a determined plan at this point.”

“The intent remains to find a means to transfer the waste out of state,” Kirk said. If the Hartford facility is unable to manage all incoming waste through transfers, Kirk said, “the plant will continue to manage waste through [the] trash to energy process.”

In the meantime, Kirk said MIRA is considering issuing another request for proposals to run a transfer operation at the Hartford site. He said the agency is also looking at legislative remedies, moving the Hartford waste to MIRA’s other transfer stations “and possibly some additional concepts yet to be fleshed out.”

But he cautioned the clock is ticking.

“From an efficiency standpoint, a cost standpoint, a reliability standpoint, the plant continues to struggle,” Kirk said. “To anticipate operating another full year like that is a big ask.”

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 at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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