UPDATE: Dec. 10, 2020: The Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) recently announced plans to close its refuse-derived fuel facility by July 2022 at the latest, as reported in the last week by WNPR and the Hartford Courant.
The move follows years of debate around the plant's future, but was largely expected after Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection rejected refurbishment plans earlier this year, among other events. For member communities that have contracts with MIRA past that date, the facility will be converted into a transfer station. MIRA anticipates private sector operators will also play a role in managing some of the tonnage, with all of it heading to out-of-state disposal sites.
- Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) recently rejected plans from the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) to refurbish an aging refuse-derived fuel (RDF) facility for a capital cost of at least $330 million. Commissioner Katie Dykes called it "a false choice, and a bad deal" in a July 14 letter.
- MIRA's board previously identified exporting to out-of-state landfills as the only near-term alternative, but DEEP is calling for new ideas beyond solely converting the site to a transfer station. The letter asked for more attention to efforts in line with the state's materials management strategy, such as organics diversion, recycling education and unit-based pricing to drive waste reduction.
- This effectively ends a final push by MIRA and the Sacyr Rooney Recovery Team (SRRT) to secure financial buy-in for a project initiated by a 2015 request for proposals from DEEP. “It closes the book on the DEEP process," MIRA President Tom Kirk told Waste Dive. “MIRA still has its obligation to try and develop some capacity and continue to serve the municipalities, but the means by which we do that is now a blank sheet of paper."
The fate of this facility that handles approximately one-third of Connecticut's waste has been debated for years, with disruptive equipment outages and numerous delays along the way. While this outcome was not entirely unexpected by stakeholders, the state's rejection of MIRA's operational plan did come as a surprise to some and reframes discussions about next steps.
The process dates back to a 2014 law calling on DEEP and MIRA to solicit proposals for redeveloping the system in an effort to help achieve the state's 60% diversion goal. Initial plans included a range of ideas such as mechanical biological treatment and anaerobic digestion. But that scope narrowed amid realizations that the existing facility's condition was worse than anticipated. Gov. Ned Lamont's administration inherited the process when it took office in 2019.
Financing plans have also shifted along the way, leading to projected tip fees considered too high by some of MIRA's member municipalities and a potential need for state funding that has not been warmly received. In an interview last month, SRRT attributed some of these challenges to a disconnect between DEEP and MIRA. Sacyr North America General Counsel Brian Kirby called this latest outcome "deeply disappointing" and a "missed opportunity" for the state.
"Soon, if there is not a change in course, Connecticut municipalities will be placed in the unenviable position of being forced to truck hundreds of thousands of tons of solid waste out of the state, at great cost to them and the environment," said Kirby in a statement to Waste Dive, encouraging the state to take steps to make exporting "financially unattractive" and work collaboratively. "We remain hopeful that reason will prevail, and that MIRA and DEEP will ultimately be able to put aside the differences between them to do what is right – to develop and implement a comprehensive waste management plan for Connecticut that employs cutting edge diversionary technology and provides for the processing of the remainder within the state’s borders."
Connecticut has long touted its emphasis on waste-to-energy technologies over landfills, but MIRA's board previously voted to pursue transferring to out-of-state landfills if a deal wasn't reached by Aug. 31. DEEP is calling on the entity to also explore private sector options first.
“The letter is not saying that a MIRA transfer station could never be part of the solution, we’re saying that it can’t be the only solution," Lee Sawyer, chief of staff to Commissioner Dykes, told Waste Dive. “There must be other waste reduction, recycling or organics measures put in place so the overall footprint of that waste stream is being managed more sustainably and more in line with the state’s solid waste management plan.”
Last week, Dykes and Lamont held a press conference at local organics collection company Blue Earth Compost to highlight the type of systems they want to see prioritized. Connecticut has banned organics disposal for certain large generators since 2014, but the law exempts those outside a certain geographic range of permitted processing facilities and includes limited enforcement measures. The state has some composting facilities and one anaerobic digester, but multiple digesters remain permitted and unbuilt due to what sources describe as a lack of reliable feedstock to attract financing.
In the perspective of both Kirk and Kirby, organics diversion is a worthwhile discussion but misses the broader issue of how to manage much of the waste that MIRA is contracted to handle through 2027.
“700,000 tons of capacity is going away in two to three years, absent some sort of significant financial infusion," said Kirk. "That’s a hard and fast stubborn fact."
Even if notable progress could be made on reducing the waste that MIRA currently handles, some of that existing tonnage would still require a disposal option. In Kirk's view, the most viable near-term options are to refurbish the existing RDF facility or make transfer arrangements. Any type of new facility, regardless of the technology, would require a longer construction and permitting timeframe.
Hartford, MIRA's host community, has generally resisted the idea of continuing the site's use for waste processing. Mayor Luke Bronin, who is also a member of MIRA's board, did not comment on his desired next steps by publication time.
While MIRA is continuing to work through an RFP process for the renovation and operation of its MRF (currently contracted with Republic Services into next year), much of the entity's future operational plans are up in the air. The state legislature is not currently expected to weigh in during a special summer session. Sacyr noted an interest in staying involved with Connecticut's waste sector, but its own next steps are unclear.
Absent a reversal of course, it appears MIRA will now be getting into the transfer business in some capacity – via its own infrastructure or otherwise – which will present a range of questions about long-term costs. As disposal capacity continues to shrink in the Northeast, the cost to ship waste elsewhere is expected to rise over time.
Sawyer noted DEEP could be open to a scenario in which MIRA proposes transfer operations for a fixed timeframe, along with waste diversion or reduction strategies, but awaits further discussion. The agency is requesting MIRA submit a revised version of its FY21 operational plan by Sept. 15.