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Connecticut's Trash Agency Feels Sense Of Urgency In Securing Ash Landfill Site

JOSH KOVNER

July 23, 2009

The state's major regional trash agency is girding for a fight to build an ash landfill in the plush, old woodlands of Franklin, but Connecticut's garbage woes go beyond fervent local opposition to another dump.

Our lowly recycling rate is our biggest problem.

Connecticut's recycling, or "waste diversion," rate of 30 percent is below the national average of about 33 percent and is blown away by the leading states. California, for example, says it reached 58 percent; Maryland reports a rate of 45.7 percent.

The way Connecticut is going, it's a virtual certainty that another ash landfill will be needed in the coming years for residue from incinerated garbage, state regulators say. If not the Franklin site, then somewhere else.

The state's yearly output of garbage is 3.8 million tons and rising; the trash-to-energy plants are at full capacity; the only solid-waste landfill that's still open, in Windsor, has 18 months of life left; and the state ships tons upon tons of garbage out of Connecticut each year, an increasingly expensive proposition.

The answer, as almost everyone knows, is to reduce what we throw out and recycle more of what's left. Yet even though those blue or green bins have been a fact of life since the state passed its recycling law in 1991, the recycling rate has been stuck in neutral for much of the past decade.

"It's been 20 years since this state has had a comprehensive conversation about what we do with our solid waste," said Diane Duva, a top waste engineering and enforcement official with the Department of Environmental Protection. "We were supposed to be at 40 percent [recycling rate] by 2000. We haven't done that. We need to have that conversation."

She said every resident must take responsibility for the problem. It could be something as simple as not throwing that empty detergent jug in the garbage just because the recycling bin is full.

There has been some movement in the past year. In central Connecticut, a number of communities have gone to single-stream recycling, meaning residents and haulers do not have to separate paper and cardboard from plastics, glass and metal. Several towns, including Avon, Cromwell, Glastonbury, Portland and Hartford, reported significant increases in recycling as a result.

The shift occurred after the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, the agency that wants to locate the ash landfill in Franklin, converted to a single-stream system at its plant in Hartford's South Meadows.

'Pay As You Throw'

Many states are moving faster than Connecticut to adopt new tactics that increase recycling or reduce garbage. In Massachusetts, for example, 144 communities have switched to a "pay-as-you-throw" unit pricing system, meaning households pay based on how much they throw away. Many of those towns report reducing their garbage output by 30 percent or more, according to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

About 7,000 cities across the country use unit pricing. In most cities and towns in Connecticut, the cost to businesses and residents doesn't change, no matter how much they toss out.

The state is in a hole because the recycling rate has been stagnant while the waste output keeps increasing. Even if Connecticut nearly doubled its recycling rate to 58 percent in the next 15 years, in 2024 it would be exactly where it is now, shipping garbage out of state, under state projections.

However, a big boost in recycling, said Duva, would push back the need for another landfill and perhaps provide time for a market to develop for ash, which is what CRRA wants to bury in Franklin. The state's only ash landfill, in Putnam, has at least 16 years of life left if the amount of ash it takes in doesn't increase. The CRRA began bringing ash to Putnam after the Hartford landfill closed last year.

In Europe, the ash, which contains lead, arsenic, mercury and other contaminants in amounts below the level of hazardous waste, is used in pavers and other road or building products, but the market hasn't taken off yet in this country.

The CRRA says it is doing everything it can to encourage recycling, including considering a $5-per-ton rebate to its member towns and cities for recyclables. But critics say the agency is spending more energy on trying to stay in business than it is on innovation.

As their contracts with the agency expire, some of the 116 member communities have cut or are contemplating cutting ties with CRRA and making their own deals for trash disposal.

The agency has told the towns and cities that it can shave $9 a ton off its $68-per-ton disposal fee if it builds its own ash landfill, but not all of the municipalities agree with that strategy.

"Investing in an ash landfill in Franklin is like investing in the horse and buggy when the Model T has just came out. There are emerging technologies that should be considered," said West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka.

The agency is waiting for the green light to apply to state regulators for permission to proceed in Franklin, despite Gov. M. Jodi Rell's publicly stated misgivings about the location an area of abundant fish and wildlife that also contains historic ruins.

Rell Wary Of Plan

Earlier this month, Rell vetoed a Senate bill that would have blocked CRRA's Franklin bid by legislative edict. She said she didn't want to take the landfill permit process out of the hands of the regulators.

In comments that assuaged some of the disappointment of the dump opponents in Franklin, Rell said, "I remain resolutely unconvinced that such a landfill is needed at all, particularly with an already operational landfill just a few miles away."

She was referring to the Putnam site. Rell went on to describe the Franklin land as "irreplaceable farmland/open space," and said, "I would urge the CRRA to explore other options."

CRRA spokesman Paul Nonnenmacher said the agency examined 76 other locations before settling on Franklin, which is also on a DEP list of "potentially acceptable sites for ash residue."

"If the governor is asking us to go back and re-check our work, we'd be happy to do that, but we think we'd reach the same conclusions," Nonnenmacher said.

Nonnenmacher said the agency will submit permit applications to the DEP to build a 90- to 100-acre landfill on 350 acres off Route 32, behind the former Franklin Mushroom Farm, near the Shetucket River.

The agency is now reviewing tests of the aquifer under the site. If the aquifer is found to produce enough water to qualify as a public-water supply, then everything comes to a halt, the project is canceled, and the CRRA abandons its Franklin plans.

Nonnenmacher said the test results are not in, but he added that nothing in the published data or what agency engineers have seen thus far suggests a public water supply.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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