Connecticut sends a larger proportion of its trash to waste-to-energy facilities than any other state, with no active MSW landfills and relatively limited exporting. This touted self-sufficiency could change if an agreement can't be reached by the end of August about the future of an aging facility that handles one-third of the state's waste.
The Materials Innovation and Recovery Authority's (MIRA) refuse-derived fuel plant in Hartford has been running on borrowed time for years, evidenced by disruptive recent outages. Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) launched a redevelopment process in 2015 that ultimately resulted in a smaller project scope at a higher cost. MIRA's efforts to get enough buy-in from its 51 member communities for a 30-year agreement have stalled and the prospect of action by the state legislature is unlikely due to the pandemic.
Some stakeholders have renewed calls for the plant to be shut down, but no clear consensus has emerged for what do with the upward of 700,000 tons of material MIRA is still responsible for handling through 2027.
MIRA's board voted on May 28 to scrap the project if an agreement could not be reached by the end of August. The approved resolution included the potential for long-term transfer operations by 2023 or sooner, and plans for a separate MRF contract to replace the current one with Republic Services that expires in 2021. Members were blunt in their disappointment, with one describing the situation as a "tragedy" and another saying the public should be "shocked and appalled that we are going to revert to landfilling."
While the project's backers recognize a proposed $145 per ton tip fee is unpalatable compared to potential rates of $95 per ton or less for exporting to out-of-state landfills, they say that is not a sustainable solution.
“The very hard situation is that we’re going backwards 20 years if we end up having to truck waste to landfills, because the state has been a leader in environmentally sound disposal practices," MIRA Board Chairman Don Stein told Waste Dive. "A lot of the landfills in other states are closing, a lot of landfills in other states are cutting back what they’re accepting ... It’s not a long-term solution."
Beyond the policy question of whether Connecticut should accept a higher proportion of waste going to landfills is the similarly thorny issue of how to pay for the project if it still happens. MIRA and the selected developer, the Sacyr Rooney Recovery Team (SRRT), say the $145 tip fee could be subsidized by some combination of public financing through general obligation bonds, renewable energy credits or a long-term power purchase at a rate above current market values.
This has led DEEP to frequently describe the project as an $800 million ask, when factoring in a projected $330 million in capital costs for the WTE facility and MRF, but MIRA disputes that characterization. Executive Director Tom Kirk maintains that higher figure has "no place in the discussion," calling the assumption current power prices couldn't improve in a 30-year timeframe "completely unrealistic" and noting tip fee revenue could presumably increase over that period as well.
While project discussions continue, stakeholders recognize time is limited. When asked whether more exporting might be inevitable, at least temporarily, DEEP said it would still prioritize in-state capacity but recognized this was possible.
"Our focus will be on helping to facilitate an orderly transition of technologies and catalyze the development of new and more preferable technologies for waste management in the state in the years to come. To the extent that out-of-state landfilling is increased in this transition, that certainly is a detrimental environmental outcome and we’d like to make sure that it is not a forever solution," said Lee Sawyer, chief of staff to DEEP's commissioner. “We’re disappointed that we’re at this place, but we’re confident that there are solutions to move forward and we understand the urgency to do so."
Years of discussion
Talk about redeveloping the MIRA facility, which was converted from a former coal plant in the 1980s, date back to at least 2007. Construction of a replacement mass burn combustion facility has long been ruled out for multiple reasons, with the state also placing emphasis on the inclusion of alternative technologies to help meet a goal of 60% diversion by 2024.
DEEP's "Resource Rediscovery" request for proposals attracted more than a dozen interested parties and three finalists were selected in 2016: Covanta, Mustang Renewable Power Ventures and SRRT. The plans included a range of ideas, with SRRT envisioning the potential for both mechanical biological treatment and anaerobic digestion capabilities. SRRT was selected in late 2017, and intended to pursue private financing for the project, but the scope of its plans changed by the time a term sheet was signed with MIRA in 2019.
“As an international company with facilities all over the world, one of the things that we were most excited about bringing here was new technology, things that aren’t as readily available here in the U.S.," said Brian Kirby, general counsel for Sacyr USA. "Once we’re on site, those capabilities don’t go away, but if we don’t take care of this first point we’re never going to get there."
Kirby attributed part of the delay to a disconnect between DEEP and MIRA about the project structure. Stakeholders and observers have a range of opinions on what played out between the time of selection and final agreement, but say a resolution came together once the framework shifted to MIRA's preferred terms. This included plans for public financing, as well as a more limited initial scope focusing solely on refurbishing the existing infrastructure.
One key factor, in Kirby's view, is that the facility's condition was "far worse than I think anybody realized" and necessary renovations were found to be “much more expensive than what was explained during the tender phase of the agreement." MIRA's Kirk said all bidders "had the opportunity to crawl through the plant and make their initial assessments short of a comprehensive due diligence."
Multiple stakeholders said other factors, like the higher host fee payments to Hartford and a decline in energy prices, played a role as well. Rising insurance premiums, the likelihood of a more expensive recycling contract and the potential of lost revenue if its power block facility shuts down are also looming factors for MIRA.
While MIRA said it supports the goals of exploring other alternatives to manage the waste stream, now envisioned for future phases, leaders believe the current proposal is the only viable option. Though the process has been difficult, Kirk said he still views it as valuable “to prove to everyone that there was not a magic bullet available that would have been a better alternative, reasonably priced, economic and reliable for the towns other than renovating and refurbishing the existing trash-to-energy plant."
Yet when MIRA began shopping details around to member communities this past winter, it did not garner enough support to make the project viable without state funding to subsidize a tip fee about $50 more than what they currently pay.
Around that time, Governor Ned Lamont's administration introduced a bill (SB 11) laying out numerous solid waste proposals, including plans to solicit new proposals for a range of technologies statewide and asking MIRA to develop a five-year plan by late 2021.
March testimony from DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes pointed to rising amounts of waste being exported, along with concerns about the reliability of MIRA's infrastructure. MIRA called the bill "well intentioned," but said it overlapped with the process already kickstarted by a 2014 law and "would postpone desperately needed action to implement a competitively developed and comprehensive solution."
Sawyer confirmed the bill's intention was to explore alternatives to MIRA's redevelopment project given the remaining uncertainty around its prospects.
"If the state were able to invest hundreds of millions in waste infrastructure, which was not the original expectation in the MIRA RFP, it would be important to weigh all options available before making that level of investment," he said, referencing the potential for additional anaerobic digestion capacity and pay-as-you-throw programs.
Some critics of the project viewed the bill's broader scope as a positive step, but not ideal as the policy proposals didn't go as far as some other states in the regions and the definition of new "resource recovery" projects was too broad.
“If Connecticut is going to pass legislation that overhauls its waste and recycling systems, there are much more important priorities for the state to focus on," said Kevin Budris, a staff attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation. The group supports state investment in anaerobic digestion, but is wary of spending on MIRA's plant or similar high-heat technologies.
"The question is, what is Connecticut going to look like in five years or 10 years," said Budris. "Committing to a long-term future of shipping waste out of state or committing to another 30 years of incineration, it’s folly. It doesn’t make sense when there are opportunities like organics diversion, better recycling, pay-as-you-throw, that not only reduce waste but also save money."
Multiple stakeholders hoped state legislators could influence this long-running discussion about Connecticut's solid waste future, but less than a week after the SB 11 hearing, the session was disrupted by pandemic shutdowns. A special summer session has been discussed, but not confirmed.
The project's backers recognize recent developments have put further strain on state resources, but also point out the issue is not going away.
“It doesn’t change the fact that in the absence of action here, the state of Connecticut is going to have a real problem," said Kirby. “This facility is the only publicly-owned waste facility in the state for processing. So I think it serves as a key check against the market."
Connecticut's other WTE facilities, owned or operated by Covanta and Wheelabrator, have their own capacity constraints and disposal options are increasingly limited in New England.
Beyond MIRA's municipal customers, the fate of MIRA's facility is also looming large for haulers. Steve Changaris, vice president of the National Waste & Recycling Association's Northeast region, described the MIRA plant as "important in terms of capacity" and said "there's little room for error here." Changaris said it was out of the private sector's hands, but remained optimistic.
"In the end we have every confidence that trash is going to get collected and there’s going to be capacity and there’s going to be programs to take care of these vital public needs," he said.
Key parties still remain divided on where to go next, with the host community lukewarm about perpetuating waste infrastructure on a prime piece of riverfront property. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin's office did not respond to requests for comment, but he recently told the Hartford Courant other options should now be considered instead of "just doubling down on the mistakes of the past."
SRRT still hopes state action could be forthcoming to make the project financially viable.
"If this is to move forward, it’s going to be because legislators and municipalities see the importance of the project and rehabbing it, and some action gets done to make the cost more palatable," said Kirby. "...When we look at the way facilities have been financed in the past in Connecticut, we see that power purchase agreements have been pretty readily used and so we think that could be a potential avenue and one that would allow this to get done in a relatively painless manner."
DEEP pledged to remain engaged in the discussions.
“We think it’s important that the state acts with urgency in all ways that we can to identify solutions, and that means we will be working even without legislation to explore what alternatives may be available, as well as to work closely with MIRA to understand their contingencies, including the rail transfer proposal," said Sawyer.
In the meantime, MIRA is exploring a potential conversion to intermodal transfer operations by 2023, or sooner depending on the plant's performance. Stein said the board came close to stopping the project entirely, but extended the timeframe to account for recent events such as the coronavirus and social unrest.
“We recognize everybody has a lot on their plate," he said. “We’re hopeful that in the next two to three months we can sit down with the folks in the state government and make the right decision."