MIRA shutdown: Connecticut’s solid waste crisis

Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) trash-burning, Waste to Energy (WTE) plant in Hartford’s South Meadows was closed in 2022. The site first opened as a power plant on December 19, 1921 when the Hartford Electric Light Company fired up the South Meadows Station.

Jennifer Almquist

MIRA shutdown: Connecticut’s solid waste crisis

HARTFORD — When Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont signed House Bill (HB) 6664 on June 29, 2023, effectively closing the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) Hartford facility, it was the end of an era.

Since 1988, the MIRA plant had been used as a Waste-to-Energy (WTE) plant incinerating garbage from the region, including the Northwest Corner, and producing electricity at a rate of 400,000 megawatts per hour. One third of all Connecticut’s trash was processed there.

The eighty-acre South Meadows site located on the shore of the Connecticut River just south of Hartford originally served 70 Connecticut towns.

At present there are no landfills in Connecticut and only five other incinerators (in Bristol, Preston, Plainfield, Bridgeport, and Lisbon). As a result, 860,000 tons of garbage is now being shipped three hours west to the Keystone Sanitary landfill in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, and taken by railroad to Tunnel Hill Reclamation Landfill in Lexington, Ohio.

According to Housatonic Regional Resources Recovery (HRRA) Executive Director Jennifer Heaton-Jones, Connecticut residents produce 3.5 million tons of municipal solid waste annually, yet the state only has capacity for 2.7 million tons. Heaton-Jones said it takes 125,000 trucks to move our 3.5 million tons of waste to existing facilities and 29,000 more trucks to move the rest out-of-state.

MIRA was replaced by MIRA Dissolution Authority (MDA), which has been tasked with shutting down the facility, selling the operable heavy equipment, selling scrap metal, and cleaning up the site. MDA is obligated by Public Act 23-170 to “continue to operate the authority’s transfer stations until acceptable alternatives, operated by entities other than the authority, become available, as determined by the Commissioner of Energy and Environmental Protection.”

US Senator Richard Blumenthal revealed his concern and grasp of the looming crisis. “The closure of the MIRA facility in Hartford has brought more attention to a longstanding issue facing Connecticut, its towns and residents – how to better address our solid waste crisis. State and local governments, along with environmental advocates, have been discussing various initiatives including increased recycling, food waste diversion and reducing municipal solid waste. Initiatives such as establishing anaerobic digesters to process food waste have already received federal funding with my support. I will continue to collaborate with state and local officials, advocates and businesses to provide federal support for their initiatives.”

The story of the MIRA facility began on December 19, 1921, when the Hartford Electric Light Company (HELCO) fired up their South Meadows Station. The $5 million facility was “seen as a marvel of efficiency,” according to the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority (CRRA). Equipped with coal conveyors and automatic stokers, the plant burned 250 tons of coal daily. In 1928, the first commercial mercury cycle generating units in the world opened at the South Meadows Station. Despite its thermodynamic efficiency, once mercury’s health risks were known it was discontinued.

The South Meadows Station was converted to petroleum fuels by the 1940s and, in 1978, the “Mid-Connecticut Project” was proposed as a $150 million garbage-burning plant to resolve the region’s solid waste disposal problems. Four dual turbine Pratt & Whitney backup generators provided emergency power to the switch yards in the event the main boilers went offline, like during the Northeast Blackout of 1965. For every 800,000 tons of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), 16,000 tons of ferrous metal was recovered for recycling. The Regional Recycling Center (RRC) also received 80,000 tons per year of cardboard, paper, newspaper, plastic, and soda cans.

Jennifer Almquist

In 2001, the site was purchased by the CRRA, which required prior environmental contamination be remediated. There were 45 areas of concern identified through thousands of soil samples taken.

The South Meadows site went through 12 years of active remediation work at a cost of $28 million, including removal of 60,000 tons of impacted soil, pumping and treatment of ground water, installation of engineered controls, imposition of deed restrictions and environmental land use restrictions. Eversource, which has an easement for its massive transformers on site, uncovered some deep pocket of theretofore unknown historical contamination, which halted the remediation process.

In 2020 MIRA asked the state for $330 million to restore the South Meadows but they were turned down by Katie Dykes, Commissioner of DEEP, who chastised MIRA for presenting a “false choice, and a bad deal for taxpayers across the state, Hartford residents, and the environment. I expect more from MIRA as a public sector trash authority. Today, I asked that the MIRA board deliver to the state a real plan, fully exploring all the options. MIRA was envisioned to be a partner for the state in implementing sound policy on waste, recycling, and the environment.”

Governor Lamont was also not a fan of the MIRA remediation proposal. He said, “I cannot support sending hundreds of millions of state taxpayer or electric ratepayer dollars to MIRA to attempt to keep a failing decades-old facility running, right here in Hartford where it impacts our vulnerable residents. A permanent trash export operation is also a nonstarter. It’s time for new ideas.”

Tom Kirk, President of MIRA at that time, expressed his disappointment. “Regrettably, the operations plan portends planning for a regressive initiative to commence large scale transport to and landfilling at distant out-of-state landfills. MIRA is disappointed in the collective failure of Connecticut’s policymakers to mobilize to prevent this environmental and public service tragedy.”

At a meeting Tuesday, May 14, the MDA Board, which is headed by Lamont appointee Bert Hunter, Chief Investment Officer of Connecticut Green Bank, voted to retain the $56 million remaining in their coffers to use towards remediation of the site, which is essentially a brownfield.

MDA approved a $629,500 contract with Weston and Sampson Engineers to conduct the South Meadows Redevelopment Considerations Study, to determine the environmental impacts of future use and identify hazards such as lead in the thermal systems, pipes, insulation, paint, flange gaskets, valve packing, pipe dope, and plaster surfacing materials. In the current location, there are mercury vapor light tubes, high pressure sodium lamps, and mercury switches. The coal ash pond may contain heavy metals, including arsenic, mercury, cadmium, chromium, lead, nickel, and selenium.

The existing level of toxins may delay tearing down the massive brick, cement, and steel structures. It will be difficult to dispose of the toxic rubble. Despite the site contamination, a turtle was sunning on a rock in the pond, grey herons posed, eagles were nesting in nearby trees, and a coyote ran through the empty plant.

The cost to perform this work is estimated and funded at $3.3 million. All MSW delivered to the plant was processed into refuse-derived fuel (RDF) and combusted to produce electricity. The last load of MSW was delivered to the plant on July 11, 2022; the last boiler was shut down on July 19, 2022, and all the RDF was consumed.

Engineer Chris Shepard has worked at this facility for 23 years.Jennifer Almquist

Chris Shepard, the environmental compliance manager, worked for 23 years as an engineer at the plant. May 14 he conducted a tour of the mothballed facility. There is a scale model of the entire plant in the control room. After seeing it in miniature, the scale of the building is staggering. There are vestigial parts of the original coal burning facility, vintage control boards, security cameras, some defunct, some still running, in the old control room.

Shepard explained in detail the inner workings of each massive storage tank, conveyor belt, turbine, and exhaust tubing. Climbing an open metal staircase, the world dropped away to the Connecticut River serenely moving by. There is an intricate flood barrier and moat to prevent pollution seeping into the river. People were fishing and sunbathing by the riverside just west of the plant. One hundred people worked at the facility and only ten remain.

Engineer Shepard, mused, “The South Meadow Station site has been re-purposed numerous times over the last 100 years in response to changes in the infrastructure needs of the City of Hartford and the region. We are starting another one of those cycles as we undertake our South Meadows Redevelopment Considerations Study to best-inform future decisions regarding site redevelopment.”

David M. Bodendorf, manager of engineering, construction and power assets at MDA recalled, “One of the biggest projects I worked on in my 23 years with the authority was the closure and capping of the landfill in the north end of Hartford. The project transformed the landfill from something of an unsightly nuisance, into a picturesque open space that is home to a solar energy facility. I would love the opportunity to assist in transforming the site of the former Waste to Energy facility in the City’s south end into something beneficial to the city.”

Recently, MDA staff met with the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance to discuss the history of the South Meadows site, remediation of the site, and its future use. To Sandy Wood of the Alliance, the South Meadows plant was a “prime example of environmental racism,” by sending the garbage of mostly white towns in the Northwest corner to be burned near neighborhoods of color.

The Alliance was pleased that the MDA board voted to use their remaining funds to remediate the land. The Hartford City Council appointed five members to the board of MDA. Hartford Mayor Arunan Arulampalam said, “We will make sure in the City of Hartford that these funds that are meant to clean up the City of Hartford are used to do just that, to restore the wrongs of the past, to be able to restore back this land, and to be able to build on this beautiful Connecticut River a space that is worthy of the residents of this neighborhood.” MIRA Dissolution Authority board member, CT State Senator John Fonfara (who represents Hartford and Wethersfield) said, “Hartford has accepted the waste, the garbage, from most towns in the state of Connecticut for over 40 years in terms of the trash energy plant, where trucks have pounded on our streets, have sat idling for I don’t know how long before they go into to dispose of the waste. Emissions from that plant are adjacent to some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city of Latino, African American dominant populations. We have done our bit. We’ve paid the price.”

The dissolution of MIRA has had a significant impact on the Northwest corner of Connecticut, especially the towns of Canaan, Colebrook, Cornwall, Goshen, Norfolk, Winsted, Salisbury, North Canaan, Barkhamsted, New Hartford, and Sharon. The Northwest Hills Council of Governments (NHCOG) has until June 30, 2027, to come up with a Municipal Service Agreement (MSA) to either secure alternative waste management services or transition to a regional waste authority like the MIRA Torrington transfer station. MDA has agreed to keep the tipping fee (a fee paid by those who dispose of waste in a landfill, based on the weight of the disposed waste) at $131 per ton until 2027. After that, the towns are on their own to find a place to send their trash. Dan Jerram, First Selectman of New Hartford, and the new head of NHCOG, hopes the area towns will organize by taking over the management of a regional facility such as the existing MIRA Torrington Transfer station. Litchfield has already opted out of its connection to MIRA and hired outside haulers to do their curbside pick-up. After completing its tasks, the MIRA Dissolution Authority will no longer exist.

Todd Arcelaschi worked at MIRA for years. He is now the Mayor of Winchester, and Administrator of Regional Refuse Disposal #1 (RRDD#1) which serves New Hartford, Winchester, and Barkhamsted. He weighed in, “Trash is never going to stop, and most people don’t care about their trash as long as it gets picked up off their curb every week, but they should care. Shipping trash to a landfill is not the answer. We’ve learned here that the things we do today can later cause harm. We need to find an economically and environmentally friendly way to dispose of trash. In my opinion we should be burning trash and creating energy to help power electric cars and the electric grid, as we don’t produce enough energy now.”

Mark T. Daley, current President and CFO of the MIRA Dissolution Authority was reassuring. “The communities in the Northwest corner of the State should know that the Authority is committed to working closely with them to ensure both a smooth transition to local control of our Torrington Transfer Station and uninterrupted waste management services through the June 30, 2027, expiration of our Municipal Services Agreements. They should also understand that the proper closure and potential future use assessment of the Hartford Resource Recovery Facility, through which their waste has historically been processed, is being appropriately addressed.”

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