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Burning Trash

Is the CRRA's Garbage-Burning Plant Contributing to Hartford's Alarmingly High Rate of Childhood Asthma?

By Gregory B. Hladky

August 22, 2011

It was once considered a brilliant, environmentally friendly solution to a disgusting and ever-growing Connecticut problem. Three decades later, the quasi-state agency created to turn our trash into energy has a reputation pockmarked by mismanagement, accusations of corruption and political influence, costly court battles and claims it's polluting the air poor children breathe.

One environmental group in Hartford is now demanding the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority shut down part of its last garbage-burning plant, accusing it of contributing to the city's sickeningly high (41 percent) rate of childhood asthma. A 2009 state report showed Hartford children age 4 and younger had higher rates of emergency room asthma diagnoses than for any other Connecticut city.

CRRA officials insist there's no scientific evidence to back up those claims, argue their mid-Connecticut plant in Hartford is "one of the cleanest in the country," and warn cutting the plant's capacity by one-third would leave Connecticut finding some way to get rid of 250,000 tons of trash a year from nearly 70 communities.

Some critics believe the CRRA is on its last legs. They say increased recycling will leave it with less garbage to burn, which means the trash-burning plant will be able to produce less energy, and that modern technology and more efficient private industry will soon put the agency out of its misery.

The 20-or-so people who staged an anti-asthma demonstration outside Hartford City Hall last week claim the CRRA and Connecticut are incinerating far more garbage and putting far more pollutants into the air than necessary. According to Claire Miller of the Toxics Action Center, Connecticut is burning 66 percent of its garbage, a rate she says is the highest in the nation. The CRRA's Hartford plant is the fifth-largest trash incinerator in the U.S. and it's putting nasty crap like dioxins and mercury and nickel into the city's air, Miller claims.

"It's not that they are the cause of asthma in Hartford," Miller says, "but that they pollute things that contribute to asthma." She says increased recycling and composting should make burning garbage "a last resort."

CRRA spokesman Paul Nonnenmacher insists there are no facts to back up such claims. And he asks what else Connecticut would do with all that trash coming in from municipalities across the state.

He argues his agency is already pushing towns hard to recycle. Composting up to 14 percent of all this state's garbage is possible, he says, except nobody wants a composting facility in their backyard. The CRRA's effort to open a new landfill in the rural eastern Connecticut town of Franklin was a political no-go. Trucking that much refuse to Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania or even Ohio would create traffic headaches and more pollution.

A big chunk of the CRRA's trouble today is that too many people remember its history. Not long after it started up in the late 1970s, the agency's Bridgeport garbage-to-energy plant kept exploding. There were endless complaints from towns that its disposal costs were too high. The topper was the agency's absurd $220 million deal with Enron, a scheme engineered by one of then-Gov. John G. Rowland's chief henchmen. When Enron went belly-up, the CRRA deal imploded, and the repercussions helped bring down Rowland's felonious administration and left the trash agency with a permanently scarred image.

There were stories about its high-paid executives, the four state lawmakers who were on its payroll at one point, including one former state Sen. Tom Gaffey who pleaded guilty to misusing state money. (Gaffey's still a CRRA official.)

Michael Pace, who came in as chairman nearly 10 years ago to help get the CRRA back on its feet, agrees that the "cumulative effect" of that scandal, court battles over distributing the $111 million that was eventually recovered, and ongoing contract problems continue to haunt the agency.

Pace is first selectman of Old Saybrook and he's planning to retire from his no-pay CRRA post at the end of this year.

He says poor decisions made decades ago cost the CRRA control of its plants in Bridgeport and Wallingford. Pace believes much of the criticism leveled at the agency today is coming from "other entities ... that are looking at the CRRA and seeing what pieces they could take." But he says there's a future for the agency he helped revive, insisting it can help solve Connecticut's trash issues and save taxpayers money.

That's not the opinion of state Rep. Dick Roy, co-chairman of the legislature's Environment Committee.

Roy says the quasi-state agency's days are numbered, and that its tasks are soon likely to be taken over by some private operation that's "perhaps run more efficiently and without the politics the CRRA has been involved with over the years."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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