Shawn R. Beals / ctnewsjunkie
The Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority plant in Hartford (Shawn R. Beals / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT—The Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority is asking its 51 member towns to commit to new 30-year contracts for waste disposal by June 1 so it can finance the $330 million cost to renovate the failing trash-to-energy plant.

Without those commitments, which could increase town waste disposal costs by more than 70% over current levels if substantial state funding isn’t included, MIRA could shut down the plant entirely within two years and begin shipping trash to mega-landfills in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York.

The plant burns a third of Connecticut’s refuse and turns it into electricity.

“[MIRA] has infrastructure in dire, desperate need of reinvestment, repair, refurbishment,” said Thomas Kirk, executive director of the agency. “Its ability to sustain operations is quite frankly in doubt right now.”

MIRA needs most of its 51 member towns to sign long-term deals in order to make the renovation project viable, he said.

“If only a handful of towns move forward, there is no project,” Kirk said. “We need to get moving. We do not have time or the luxury of more study. If we don’t rebuild the plant, [Connecticut’s trash] is going into a hole, and the hole is in Ohio, New York, or Virginia.”

Towns with MIRA contracts are currently paying about $83 per ton, projected to go up to about $91 in the next fiscal year. MIRA officials said they are trying to combine state bonding, a new power-purchase agreement for the energy generated by the plant and renewable energy credits to keep the cost of disposal to about $95 per ton after the plant is renovated.

But without those three additional revenue sources, towns would have to pay $145 per ton for their waste disposal.

“I’m going to call this a constructive crisis,” Durham First Selectwoman Laura Francis said. “I think this is going to finally give us the impetus to have some tough conversations with our residents and say, ‘how do you want to handle this?’”

Shawn R. Beals / ctnewsjunkie
MIRA Executive Director Thomas Kirk address town leaders at the state Capitol (Shawn R. Beals / ctnewsjunkie)

She said after years of trimming budgets, increased costs for items like waste disposal to towns will almost always mean a tax hike or a cut to some other service. Town leaders will have no choice but to go to their legislators and ask for attention in the coming session.

“It’s going to be directly an increase in property taxes if we can’t absorb this increase in another way,” Francis said.

MIRA has been working with a European developer chosen by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection for more than two years on a plan to modernize.

Kirk made a presentation Wednesday to municipal leaders at the state Capitol. He said MIRA would be sending its member towns a suggested commitment letter to bring to town and city councils for approval.

The $330 million proposal is to rebuild the current infrastructure. It would be somewhat more efficient based on newer technology, but it would continue offering the same service MIRA currently provides at its southern-Hartford facility.

Future projects to improve waste diversion efforts would require additional funding as a later phase.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin was critical of the plan Wednesday. He said other states have made great strides to reduce waste, and that such efforts in Connecticut could substantially ease the burden on the waste disposal system.

“As the mayor of the city I have concerns that go beyond the most cost-effective disposal, including whether doubling down on an ancient facility at strategic riverfront land at the intersection of two majors highways, the likes of which would be hard for us to find anywhere in New England, is the right choice for our state,” Bronin said.

He said reduction efforts could greatly reduce the reliance on a huge regional plant.

“I fully admit that part of my eagerness to look for alternatives comes from the fact that I think this is a strategic mistake for the state, an additional burden on the capitol city in a way that’s damaging to the entire state and I think we’re pursuing this particular site for the reason that many of us in municipal government despise most, which is because it’s the way we’ve always done it,” Bronin said.

The dire state of MIRA’s equipment has received wide attention in the last two years with major breakdowns that put the plant out of service and caused huge trash pile-ups.

MIRA Board Chairman Don Stein, the first selectman of Barkhamsted, said it’s unclear how the 51 member towns will react to the increased costs associated with the plant renovations, but some will probably not be able to absorb major price hikes.

“The state has been a leader in environmentally-conscious solid waste disposal,” Stein said. “We want to continue to do the right thing for the environment. The harsh economic reality is the problem, and how do you offset that environmental consciousness with economic reality. That’s probably going to be hard sell at $145 per ton.”

There is currently no commitment from the state or the legislature to provide funding for the project, officials said.

“We recognize that it’s time to focus on bringing a balance back to the way we manage our regional waste in this state. The proposed cost of this project is a challenge and there is no decision without feedback from the municipalities. If this project is not feasible, we look forward to working with municipalities to explore alternatives,” DEEP Spokeswoman Kristina Rozek said in a statement.