Nagging questions about the future of Hartford’s South Meadows

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Which is better for the residents of Hartford: a trash- to- energy plant or a 250 megawatt gas- fired power plant?

City officials have voiced strong opposition to the current proposal to modernize the waste processing facility in Hartford’s South Meadows, arguing there are better uses for the site, and that the facility imposes significant health impacts on residents.

The City Council impaneled a Solid Waste Task Force to consider alternatives for managing the city’s waste. While some council members have spoken of marinas or upscale riverfront condominiums, the area is suitable only for commercial/ industrial development.

I learned at the September meeting of the Task Force that the city’s vision for development is a 250 MW power plant. While a natural gas power plant would reduce air emissions even more than the 40 percent reduction offered by the upgraded trash-to-energy plant and provide tax revenue to the city, there are several nagging questions.

The Material Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA), which operates the facility, was created by the state legislature. Closing the facility and returning the land to the city would require approval by the legislature. It would also require the state to find alternative disposal options for the waste currently sent to Hartford, roughly one- third of the state total.

A study conducted in 2013 estimated approximately three years and $12 to 20 million just to demolish the structure back to ground level, assuming no soil exposed due to excavation. If the cost of alternative waste disposal for the city’s 85,000 tons increased by $13/ton (the difference between the proposed modernization and a competing proposal to abandon the site favored by the city), the additional hit to the operating budget would be $1.1 million per year. I also wonder how this would affect the state legislature’s willingness to help stabilize city finances. It is not obvious that this ‘better use’ would improve Hartford’s finances.

I also learned that the broader vision includes closing Brainard Airport and the Regional Market and returning the state land to the city tax roll. Again, more nagging questions.

Would the Federal Aviation Agency support such a plan? How would closure of the airport impact efforts to upgrade commercial service at Bradley? I fully agree with the mayor and city council when they protest against the unfair burden dumped on Hartford to manage the waste of some 70 surrounding towns.

Hartford is not being fairly compensated for the health costs and lost tax revenue for hosting a regional waste facility. Current pricing even has Hartford residents subsidizing the cost of transporting the wastes from surrounding towns to the MIRA facility. But the proposed vision, which depends on the approval of state and federal agencies seems fanciful in the current environment of looming budget deficits.

I would suggest a different vision. The towns currently relying on Hartford for waste disposal recognize they have a stake in the project, and that they have a responsibility to fairly compensate the residents of Hartford for accepting their wastes. We all work collaboratively to ensure the plant is upgraded with best available technology to minimize pollution and health impacts. The state invests in South Meadows to create an eco- industrial park that uses recovered materials as inputs for new products or higher value refined materials. Waste heat or electricity from the site could be used to subsidize a vertical farm, adding value to the Regional Market. Recovery of waste organics from the market and Fresh Point could become useful feedstock for new businesses.

Yale is an international leader in industrial ecology, and both Yale and the University of Connecticut have strong programs in green chemistry. New green businesses would create jobs for residents and perhaps, convince more college graduates to remain in Connecticut, as well as providing tax revenue.

I prefer a bird in hand to two in the bush.  I’ll take a 40 percent reduction in pollution now, and work to create a long- term strategy to ensure this is the last time we need to upgrade an incinerator in Hartford.

Thomas Swarr lives in Hartford.

What do you think?

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