A couple of months ago, the Connecticut MIrror published a lengthy article about Connecticut’s “struggle to move into the 21st century” with respect to the disposal of trash. The article was prompted by concerns that the waste-to-energy plant in the South Meadows of Hartford is nearing the end of its useful life. Every town in the Hartford metropolitan area has the same problem; they all send their trash to the plant. Something has to be done to provide for the disposal of waste for the future.
The waste-to-energy plant is owned and operated by the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA), which is the successor to the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority (CRRA). CRRA built the South Meadows plant and three other waste-to-energy plants in Connecticut.
I know something about the South Meadows plant and about the waste-to-energy business. I represented CRRA during the decade when all of its plants came on line, and I used to attend weekly meetings at the South Meadows plant while it was under construction.
Waste-to-energy plants are, or at least were, excellent solutions to the problem of solid waste disposal. By burning solid waste in boilers that generate steam and using the steam to generate electricity, the plants recover and use the energy in trash. In addition, the residue from the combustion takes up much less landfill space than if the trash were dumped without burning. For nearly 30 years, the South Meadows facility has disposed of the trash from about 50 towns in an environmentally sound and cost effective manner.
The problem for those towns now is that the South Meadows facility would require major work to extend its useful life for another 20 or 30 years, and according to the article, the facility no longer represents the state of the art in comprehensive solid waste management. Fifty towns now must figure out what to do with their solid waste.
And so, again, we turn to local governance. I was witness to the tail end of the process that required 44 towns to agree with CRRA to build the South Meadows facility, and I was witness to the tail end of the process for fifteen-odd towns in greater Bridgeport as they agreed to join CRRA’s Bridgeport Project. It was not pretty, and it was not easy.
The problem was that CRRA could sell bonds to finance the construction of these projects (each cost $300 million or more) only if it had binding commitments from each of the towns to participate in the project for 20 years. The towns had to agree that they would send all their trash to the project and pay whatever it cost for the project to continue to operate until the bonds were paid off. If the “tipping fee” (the price to dispose of trash) was $40 a ton (the original price in Hartford), they had to pay it. If it turned out to be $85 (the original price in Bridgeport), they had to pay it. If it turned out to be $120 (what New York City was paying to dispose of trash), they had to pay it. If the price went down, great. If the price went up, they had to pay it, no matter how high.
Town leaders were understandably reluctant to approve a twenty-year contract obligating the town to pay the price, whatever it was, with no upper limit. One town after another raised any number of issues: What if the plant doesn’t work? What if new technology comes along that’s cheaper or better? What if the price sky-rockets? What if CRRA is defrauded by Enron? (No one asked that question, of course, but that is in fact what happened, and it was an expensive problem.) The answer to every question was “the town has to pay.”
Hartford, West Hartford, Bloomfield, Wethersfield, Newington, Windsor, East Hartford, South Windsor all were in various stages of dealing with their own solid waste issues, and they all had to decide whether to get on board with CRRA. In an earlier era, towns simply took the least desirable land in town and created a landfill, but that solution no longer was feasible for most towns by the 1980s.
It took years to corral all of the towns in greater Hartford, and it took years to do it in greater Bridgeport, too. Eventually, whether out of exhaustion or desperation, enough towns agreed to go forward and the projects were built.
Now it’s happening again. Individual towns cannot solve their own solid waste disposal problems, because the cost of a disposal system is too great for one town to bear. There are only two choices on the table: buy the solution that MIRA develops, or buy services provided by the for-profit solid waste disposal industry. That’s it. Towns have no bargaining power – the trash disposal price, including the risk of price increases, is presented to them by the sellers of this service as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.
According to its website, MIRA has nine directors, including one woman, no non-white people, and five or six whose towns are served by the South Meadows facility. In other words, although MIRA is key to the solid waste future of 40+ towns, very few of those towns are represented on MIRA’s board. It’s all outside the towns’ control.
I know very little about what’s going on at MIRA these days. If I had to guess, MIRA is offering the towns a well-developed plan that includes state-of-the-art technology and waste management solutions. They’re probably offering it at a currently reasonable price. That is, I assume they’re talented people doing a good job. Nevertheless, the towns are once again faced with the harsh reality of buying a solution over which they have no control. Take it or leave it. And MIRA’s solution can work, I suspect, only if if thirty or forty towns agree.
MIRA isn’t the problem with this picture. Forty municipalities is the problem.
Solid waste disposal is a regional problem that requires a regional solution.
A regional problem is best solved by a regional government.
Cities the size of greater Hartford all around the country manage their own solid waste disposal. Raleigh does. Nashville does. Greater Hartford doesn’t because greater Hartford doesn’t have one government.
Imagine that we had one city consisting of Hartford and eight or ten or twelve of the immediately surrounding towns. We would have a city with a population of 350,000 to 450,000 (like Raleigh or Nashville) and a tax base to go with it. We would have a mayor and a city council that needed to dispose of 1000 to 1500 tons of trash a day and had the authority to do it. Having that much waste gives the city bargaining power with anyone selling trash disposal services. That much solid waste gives the city council options, including the option to create its own solution. The merged city would have bargaining power with MIRA that Bloomfield and Wethersfield and East Hartford don’t have on their own. And it would have control.
Some may respond by pointing to the Bristol Resources Recovery Facility that serves a consortium of fourteen towns, a classic shared services regional solution. Yes, that’s a solution. Out of 169 towns thirty years ago, fourteen towns created a regional authority and built a solution. Why hasn’t anyone done it since then? Why didn’t the Hartford area towns do it? Because getting fifteen towns to agree to anything is very difficult, that’s why. Kudos to Bristol and its neighbors.
Who today is going to spear-head the effort to create a regional authority with Hartford and twenty other towns? What are the chances of getting those towns all to agree to send their trash to the authority for an unknown price for twenty years? And in the end, what would we have? We’d have another MDC with a life of its own, run by a board that consists of representatives of some but not all the towns, responsive to none of the towns. That board would set prices just like the MDC, and the towns would have as little control over the trash authority as they have over the MDC. Or we could just ask the MDC to do it. Then Bill DiBella would control our water, our sewers and our solid waste, and we still wouldn’t know who controls Bill Dibella. Certainly not the voters.
There are only two solutions worse than having a regional solid waste authority like Bristol’s: (1) having a regional solid waste authority whose leadership is not chosen by the region (that’s what MIRA is, more or less) and (2) having individual municipalities responsible for disposing of their own trash, which is exactly the system we face today as the South Meadows facility nears its natural end.
One city of 400,000 people deciding how to collect and dispose of its trash would be better than any of these options. We would have a division within the Department of Public Works, which would operate under the direct supervision of the mayor or the city council. Simple. That’s what every similar metropolitan area does.
We are nearly half a million people living together in one well-defined geographic area – the central Connecticut river valley. We are a typical urban/suburban metropolitan area. Every community is unique, of course, and greater Hartford is certainly different from greater Nashville and greater Raleigh and other areas, but there is nothing unique about greater Hartford that requires that we govern ourselves as though we still live in the 18th century. We share common 21st century problems, like trash disposal (and first responders, and snow removal, and education). In the 21st century, the best way to solve common problems is with a common government.