Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority tipping floor. (Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie file photo)
TERRY COWGILL

I know. It’s a serious problem, but there is something almost comical about garbage that has no place to go. I always think back to 1987 when the Mobro 4000, a barge filled with 3,200 pounds of garbage, set sail from Long Island looking for a place to dump its cargo. The Mobro 4000 went from port to port to no avail.

During a six-month, 6,000-mile journey up and down the eastern seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico, the Mobro’s entreaties were rebuffed by six states and three nations before its skipper finally gave up and took his smelly cargo back to New York, where it was burned in a Brooklyn incinerator.

The vessel, also known as the “Gar-barge,” got international media attention, not only because it fed into the narrative of arrogant New Yorkers trying to offload their problems onto the less fortunate, but because it’s a problem we can all relate to. After all, from camping in bear country to forgetting to put your waste barrels out for curbside pick-up, who among us hasn’t had to struggle at one time or another with where to stash our trash?

In actuality, however, garbage is a deadly serious issue – and it’s about to get even more serious in Connecticut, if as planned, a trash-to-energy incinerator that handles about 35% of the state’s municipal solid waste shuts down next July.

I shed no tears for the quasi-public entity that has been running the South Meadows facility. The Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority has been plagued with problems since its formation in the 1970s by then-Gov. Thomas Meskill as the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority.

As is the case with many quasi-publics, CRRA happily gobbled up taxpayer dollars but was subject to insufficient accountability and transparency. In 2001, the authority made an ill-fated $220 million unsecured loan to Enron, the energy trading giant that went belly-up after a widely publicized accounting scandal. CRRA’s arrogance was staggering.

When Enron went bankrupt, CRRA raised its tipping fees to cover its losses, resulting in a protracted and costly lawsuit from its then-70 member towns seeking compensation for the overcharging. And get this: CRRA’s executives were overpaid and it even hired lobbyists and later, as MIRA, actually made severance payments to its contractors.

MIRA’s aging trash-to-energy plant broke down in 2018 and was out of commission for several months, causing member towns to scramble. MIRA then came up with a plan to replace the plant to the tune of $330 million – a plan the Lamont administration quickly put the kibosh on. Now MIRA has a plan to turn its facility into a glorified transfer station, setting up a legal battle with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The result of the entire disaster is that Connecticut will likely have to endure what some are calling a “waste management crisis.”

Regardless of how the South Meadows property will ultimately be used, the plan now is to truck the solid waste of towns that previously depended on MIRA to landfills in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York by 2023. Disposal by out-of-state landfill is very expensive because of tipping fees and transportation costs. I have yet to see any estimates of how much it will cost.

As much as I would hate to see MIRA bailed out, I do think it’s worth considering the cost of spending the $330 million to upgrade the plant versus the cost of trucking that waste out-of-state over that same period of time. Some of the costs associated with the rebuilding of the MIRA plant could be bonded out over 30 years, with the remainder passed on to member towns.

And there are environmental costs in pushing our trash out-of-state to sit in landfills, where it produces methane, as opposed to burning it here and generating electricity. As Thomas Swarr, an ad-hoc member of the MIRA board, wrote in The Hartford Courant, the garbage going to the out-of-state landfills will surely produce methane leaking from containment systems.

Methane, a notorious greenhouse gas, adds 34 times the impact of CO2 emissions to global warming, without the benefit of generating enough electricity to power 150,000 homes. And of course, the landfill plan likely will include a fleet of dirty diesel-powered trucks that will log thousands of miles per day.

At any rate, before dismissing out-of-hand the painful prospect of the state and 51 towns shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars to bail out the embattled MIRA, I’d like to see an itemized long-term cost estimate of the transportation and tipping costs associated with the landfill plan, as well as an expert cost-benefit analysis of the environmental implications.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, it may be that rescuing the odious MIRA will actually be less painful to our wallets and friendlier to the environment. Like that stinky garbage barge that eventually returned to New York, Connecticut’s trash just might be better dealt with at home.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at PolitiConn and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.