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November 21, 2022

Hartford officials eye 80 acres of closed trash-burning plant site for redevelopment

HBJ PHOTO | MICHAEL PUFFER Hartford City Council member James Sanchez outside the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority facility’s Maxim Road entrance.

After decades burning much of Connecticut’s garbage, a massive trash-to-energy plant in Hartford’s South Meadows ceased operations this summer.

Now, Hartford officials hope to see the roughly 80-acre property around the plant used for economic redevelopment. But some worry the decommissioning plan submitted by the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) — the quasi-public agency that runs the plant — will leave behind massive, deteriorating buildings and pollution as roadblocks to redevelopment.

The closure plan MIRA submitted to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) this spring would cart away remaining waste, clean the facility of oils and chemicals and secure the on-site properties. Sprawling industrial buildings would be left in place, as would a long conveyor and other equipment.

“They are looking to just walk away, do the minimum possible and just walk away and leave the burden upon the city,” said Hartford City Council member James Sanchez. “This is a burden the city does not need because we already shoulder plenty of burden for the region.”

MIRA President Thomas Kirk said many people understandably, but mistakenly, conflate decommissioning the plant with preparation for redevelopment. Kirk said the future of the MIRA-owned property along the Connecticut River has not been decided beyond decommissioning the existing plant. The property might be put back into use for the state’s trash-disposal needs, or some other industrial use that could benefit from the existing buildings, he said.

The closure plan is meant to make the plant safe and eliminate any impacts from MIRA operations, Kirk added.

“The destiny of the site is not yet determined,” he said. “It is a valuable site for solid waste management, but also a valuable site for many other opportunities.”

A good opportunity

The plant’s aging buildings are surrounded by parking lots, electrical transmission equipment and scrubby fields. The entire property is bordered by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Its gritty, industrial look is mirrored by the neighboring 201-acre Brainard Airport and nearby 33-acre Hartford Regional Market.

The Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) facility in Hartford, which is now closed.

These three properties might not be much to look at, but Hartford officials say their combined acreage, located along a bend of the Connecticut River, represent one of the city’s best remaining economic development opportunities.

With that hope in mind, Sanchez wants to see the existing structures on the MIRA site removed and soils cleaned to standards allowing for mixed-use residential and retail development.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin is another proponent of redeveloping the MIRA site, airport and regional market in concert.

Photo | HBJ
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin.

“Taken altogether, between the property owned by Brainard Airport, the property owned by MIRA and the land owned by the currently dilapidated regional market, there are hundreds of acres of riverfront land at the intersection of New England’s two major highways,” Bronin said. “And we should look at this opportunity through the eyes of the generations that will come after us and see how we could maximize that opportunity for the benefit not just of the Capital City but the region and state as a whole.”

Bronin said he hasn’t yet identified a development concept for the MIRA site. He’s also not certain if the existing structures should be removed. But the mayor said he does not want the site to be used for municipal solid waste purposes in the future.

“My first priority is to make sure that site, which is contaminated and in need of environmental remediation, is remediated,” Bronin said. “MIRA has substantial reserves remaining in its accounts and I think it’s important and a matter of basic environmental justice that those reserves are dedicated to fully cleaning up a site that has burned much of the state’s trash for half a century.”

Bronin has been a proponent of closing and redeveloping Brainard Airport, but the Connecticut Airport Authority has shown no interest and there has been significant pushback from pilots and business owners on the site.

In April, the General Assembly authorized $1.5 million for the Department of Economic and Community Development to lead a study of possible airport redevelopment. A report is due back to lawmakers by Jan. 1.

The Hartford Regional Market is a 70-year-old agricultural distribution center with 185,000 square feet of warehouse and refrigerated space along Reserve Road. Officials have said the market is need of significant renovation. 


Local officials demand answers

Windsor consulting, engineering and construction management firm TRC Environmental Corp. developed MIRA’s plant closure plan, which estimates a $3.9-million cost, with a separate savings of $100,000 for the value of scrap metal.

That would pay for cleaning and dismantling heavy equipment and floor and storm drains; removing coal ash from a pond; covering the coal area with soil; sealing water cooling intakes and discharges; and removing and disposing radioactive sources, among other things.

A similar 2013 decommissioning study by TRC estimated costs of up to $19.3 million, but that plan included demolishing the buildings. The most expensive building to demolish would be the power plant, which once burned coal and was used by Connecticut Light & Power and a predecessor, Kirk said.

Power plant demolition would require costly removal of asbestos and other hazardous building materials, Kirk said.

The 2013 study contemplated much more extensive work because, at the time, a proposal was being floated for the Metropolitan District Commission to build a new waste-to-energy plant as part of a broad redevelopment incorporating an energy park and high-end condominium development in the South Meadows, Kirk said.

“It was important to know what we were looking at to prepare that site for development,” Kirk said. “It was kind of a very optimistic development dream.”

Under state law and its permits, MIRA isn’t responsible for clearing buildings from the site, unless the state legislature changes the quasi-public entity’s mandate, Kirk said.

Kirk also contends MIRA doesn’t have the money to fully abate and demolish the buildings on-site.

The MIRA plant has two main components, the waste-processing facility, which includes a 202,000-square-foot building housing offices, processing equipment and storage for trash to be burned. The processing area also includes a 38,000-square-foot parts and equipment warehouse.

The “power block facility” includes a guard house, administration building, and main building for power generation equipment and waste-ash removal. There are also two electrical substations and a peak need generation plant consisting of four jet engines and a 550,000-gallon jet fuel storage tank.

The peaking turbine power plant and associated fuel storage were not accounted for in MIRA’s latest closure plan.

Hartford’s City Council, in a resolution passed in September, said Hartford hasn’t been adequately consulted in MIRA’s decommissioning efforts. The resolution called for a MIRA representative to appear before the council and outline a plan to demolish the plant, decontaminate the site and return it to the city for redevelopment.

In a letter dated Nov. 4, Council President Maly D. Rosado invited Kirk to appear before the council’s Planning, Economic Development and Housing Committee on Dec. 7.

Kirk said he is happy to do so. He said the council doesn’t need to fear MIRA leaving behind a contaminated ruin. About $26 million has already been invested in cleaning the site to commercial and industrial standards after Connecticut Light & Power sold it to MIRA about two decades ago. It would be significantly more costly, however, to clean the site to residential standards.

How we got here

Bronin isn’t the only one dismissive of the potential for future trash handling on the South Meadows site.

In 2020, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes and Gov. Ned Lamont refused MIRA’s request for $330 million to help upgrade the failing trash-to-energy plant off Maxim and Reserve roads.

MIRA and its precursor had long underfunded capital needs, according to Lamont, who similarly rejected an alternative to convert the Hartford property into a large trash-transfer station.

“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,” Lamont said at the time.

As a result of the Hartford trash plant’s closure, Connecticut towns have been increasingly exporting trash to out-of-state landfills.

MIRA still manages trash exports for 25 towns — down from 120 a decade ago. Some of the garbage is sent to Pennsylvania landfills through MIRA’s Torrington transfer station; the remainder is funneled through MIRA’s Essex facility to the COVANTA trash-to-energy plant in Preston. MIRA ships recyclable materials to the privately run Murphy Road Recycling facility in South Windsor, Kirk said.

What’s next

DEEP has authority to accept or request refinements to MIRA’s closure plan. A DEEP spokesman said the agency has responded to MIRA’s plan with questions but otherwise declined an interview request on the topic.

In May, the General Assembly called for the formation of a task force to explore alternatives to exporting trash. A report of its findings is due by Jan. 1.

Kirk said the South Meadows site’s future is not in MIRA’s hands. If the state task force recommends using that site for waste management, that would be the “likely development plan,” he said. If not, then “it’s really a jump ball on what will happen to it.”

“I think there is going to be a lot of competing interests in what to do with this,” Kirk said. “Obviously the city is very interested in improving the value to the tax base of the site. It’s a beautiful site on the river.”

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