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26 Connecticut towns exiting MIRA trash collaborative, dealing another blow to agency's future

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

Troubles continue at a major state-owned trash facility in Hartford.

The Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority, or MIRA, said last week it will soon lose its contracts with 26 member towns – the biggest one-time exodus of municipal customers in the quasi-public’s history.

Town leaders in Torrington, Bloomfield, Glastonbury and Hartford said they’re leaving MIRA in the coming weeks because of rising costs and uncertainty.

Avon will also depart.

“MIRA’s future is uncertain at best,” Town Manager Brandon Robertson said in an email. “And we are making a change proactively so we don’t have to react in the future should the situation become completely untenable.”

The towns leaving MIRA will begin sending their trash to the private sector starting in July.

MIRA’s future took on renewed urgency among state and local leaders in mid-2020 when Gov. Ned Lamont terminated a $330 million proposal to renovate the quasi-public’s burn plant.

For decades, that Hartford facility burned trash from dozens of member towns in Connecticut, but aging equipment and high-profile outages raised questions about the plant’s long-term viability.

MIRA then said it would close its incinerator in Hartford in July 2022, saying it wanted to convert the site into a transfer station for garbage.

But that deal has failed to materialize, leaving MIRA shifting its closing date to as far out as 2023, while simultaneously warning that the plant’s age and condition mean it could go offline at a moment’s notice.

In an email Friday, MIRA President Tom Kirk said the state is adopting “a laissez-faire approach, allowing towns to handle the waste however they can but no longer providing the public infrastructure to provide the options needed.”

“Many first selectmen would much prefer to have an environmentally preferable option,” he said. “With MIRA gone and the state exiting, that is no longer … possible.”

‘Opting out’

Each year, MIRA offers its member towns a chance to “opt out” of their contracts with the agency after it announces its proposed disposal fees for the new year.

Earlier this year, MIRA proposed a tipping fee of between $111 and $116 per ton for the upcoming year. That’s up from the current rate of $105 per ton. The agency warned that the fees could get even higher in subsequent years if garbage needs to make the costly trip to out-of-state landfills after the incinerator goes offline.

Town leaders said MIRA’s operational uncertainty – combined with new tipping fees that are higher than what the private sector is offering – meant the time was right to jump ship.

“The most significant reason was the disposal tipping fees,” said Ray Drew, director of Public Works in Torrington. “The fees proposed are not financially sustainable for the city.”

“MIRA offered $111 for one year only,” Wethersfield Interim Town Manager Bonnie Therrien said in an email. “There were a number of companies who can give the same service as MIRA in a multi-year situation where we could lock in prices.”

Therrien said Wethersfield will opt out of its contract with MIRA and instead enter into a four-year agreement with Murphy Road Recycling. Therrien said the deal locks in a lower rate this year, with a promise to only increase to $115 by 2027.

Town leaders in Bloomfield and Glastonbury said they’ll also be contracting with Murphy Road Recycling for waste disposal in the coming weeks.

As MIRA leaves, who leads?

Donna Hamzy Carroccia, with the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, the state’s largest nonpartisan organization of municipal leaders, said she understands why so many towns are exiting MIRA.

“With the incinerator being as unreliable as it is now, to think that you would be continuing to stay with the unknown of it failing any moment – is something that I don’t think the towns … are willing to … risk for their residents and for their trash,” she said.

But she said she wants to see state leadership articulate a better vision for Connecticut’s waste future.

“We really see them as needing to make a commitment to subsidizing waste to energy,” Hamzy Carroccia said. “They must take a leadership role in attracting private investment.”

Still, in the absence of new infrastructure and MIRA’s closure, capacity to manage all of Connecticut’s waste within state borders will most likely diminish.

After all, the trash won’t stop coming. And it has to go somewhere.

“Today, the least cost alternative is truck/train to holes in the ground in western/southern states,” MIRA’s Tom Kirk said. “Residents and commercial interests, which control the majority of waste tonnage, will of course join towns in utilizing the least costly option.”