Greenwich Time (Sunday)

Conn. haulers caught mixing trash and recycle

- By Mark Pazniokas

On the day after Christmas, an investigat­or tailed a garbage truck on a shoreline residentia­l route. From a distance, he photograph­ed the truck driver emptying trash and recycling containers into the same load, bound for an incinerato­r.

On Friday, an investigat­or recorded video of another driver employed by the same hauler doing the same thing, then dumping a mixed load of trash and recyclable­s at a transfer station in Essex.

The surveillan­ce photos were taken by one of four investigat­ors employed by the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority, the quasi-public entity whose future is uncertain. Its officials described the surveillan­ce but declined to identify the hauler.

If MIRA disappears, a likely consequenc­e of the closure last year of the trash-to-energy plant in Hartford that was its primary responsibi­lity, so might the only investigat­ive unit exclusivel­y focused on trash and recycling.

The state Department of Energy and Environmen­tal Protection, while committed to diverting far more waste from disposal to recycling, is not in the business of monitoring garbage trucks.

“That is definitely true,” said Jen Perry, chief of DEEP’s materials management and compliance assurance bureau. “That would be very resourcein­tensive, to have someone follow along behind the truck and look at every stop that they make.”

DEEP has five field staffers working on compliance with waste laws and regulation­s, as well as eight office-based enforcemen­t personnel, Perry said.

“We have to sort of prioritize how we utilize our staff, recognizin­g that these are the same staff of a division that are charged with ensuring compliance with hazardous waste laws where we have a significan­t risk, potentiall­y, to the public and the environmen­t,” Perry said.

With a statewide bottledepo­sit system and singlestre­am recycling in every community, Connecticu­t recycles slightly more than half its trash, the fifth-best performanc­e in the U.S. behind Maine, Vermont, Massachuse­tts and Oregon.

But officials at MIRA say DEEP needs to be more aggressive in regulating the flow of trash and recyclable­s to protect both the environmen­t and the finances of a trash disposal infrastruc­ture expected to only get more expensive.

In the trash business, tonnage is money.

MIRA no longer is paid to burn trash to generate power in Hartford, but it still acts as a middleman for client municipali­ties by contractin­g with haulers and recyclers and operating transfer stations in Essex and Torrington.

From Torrington, the trash is shipped to the Keystone landfill in Pennsylvan­ia. From Essex, it goes to Preston, home of one of the four remaining wasteto-energy plants in Connecticu­t.

MIRA has put-or-pay contracts, meaning it is committed to delivering a certain tonnage or paying a penalty. In other words, MIRA has a financial incentive to know where the trash and recycling are going from its clients.

Depending on commodity markets that dictate the value of recycled plastic, paper and metals, it can be in MIRA’s financial interest to ensure that recyclable­s are recycled, not burned or buried.

Two years ago, for example, it paid only $3 a ton to get rid of recyclable­s at a materials recycling facility, or MRF, a tiny fraction of the $95 tipping fee at a burn plant or landfill. With a drop in market prices, the contracted MRF fee paid by MIRA is now north of $90.

Jennifer Heaton-Jones, the executive director the Housatonic Resource Recovery Authority, said the tip fees on recycling at times have exceeded the cost to dump municipal solid waste, or MSW, by $20 a ton in her area.

“I personally witnessed a hauler dumping his splitbody truck of recycling and MSW into the MSW pit” at a transfer station, she said. “Clearly he knowingly did that, but why? He did that because the market rate for recycling is so low.”

The hauler received a notice of violation from the transfer station and a letter from Housatonic warning that its registrati­on could be suspended, Heaton-Jones said.

Will Healey, a spokesman for DEEP, said the agency does not routinely get notices of violations involving waste and recycling haulers.

Heaton-Jones, whose authority covers Danbury and 13 smaller communitie­s in western Connecticu­t, said she believed such incidents were relatively rare and more likely to happen when commodity prices are low and haulers must pay more recycling facilities to take the material.

“Your material is getting recycled,” she said. “Because of this current situation of pricing, yes, we do have some bad actors. We do have some haulers who are doing this because they are trying to save money.”

The issue is called “flow control,” and Daley said it will be crucial when Connecticu­t commits to the next generation of wastedispo­sal technology, something the state began to explore in January through a request-for-informatio­n process.

“Once those options are decided, we have to have the ability — the state has to have the ability — to make sure that the waste gets there and gets paid for. Otherwise, the project won’t come to life,” Daley said.

The four surviving waste-to-energy plants rely on what customers pay them to take municipal trash and the price they get for selling energy to the regional grid. The revenue split historical­ly has been 60% tipping fees and 40% electricit­y sales.

Mark Daley, the chief executive of MIRA, said the notion that some bluebin material would be tossed as trash was “infuriatin­g.” But just as concerning, he said, was the state’s seeming disinteres­t in ensuring that contracted trash ends up in the right place.

Katie Dykes, the commission­er of energy and environmen­tal protection, said Daley is correct in asserting that flow control will be essential to financing new projects, whether they be waste-to-energy plants, facilities that turn food scraps into compost and biogas, or other technologi­es.

But those projects are years away.

MIRA has a financial interest now in assuring that contracted waste is delivered to its transfer stations and that recyclable­s are separated and delivered under a contract to a highly automated facility in Berlin that separates, bales and sells the recycled materials.

“DEEP, for quite some time now, has not had enforcemen­t personnel on the road. They used to do that,” said Tom Gaffey, the director of recycling and enforcemen­t for MIRA.

Gaffey said MIRA’s surveillan­ce late last year arose from an analysis at the Essex transfer station that showed a sharp drop in tonnage — by half from some towns, more in others.

His team followed haulers taking trash from MIRA towns to nonMIRA facilities, where Gaffey said he believes they found a lower price and were pocketing the difference.

“We did run into cases where haulers were mixing recyclable­s with trash and delivering it as trash,” he said. “In fact, we have seen haulers do this right in front of people in broad daylight.”

The financial incentive to mix trash and recyclable­s can be as simple as trying to avoid the cost of a second truck on a route, Gaffey said.

Daley and Gaffey declined to identify the hauler or haulers who either mixed trash and recyclable­s, delivered to nonMIRA facilities or both.

“We’d rather not identify them right now, because we’re still in the course of our investigat­ion,” Gaffey said. “And, quite frankly, we’re waiting, hoping that DEEP is going to make a referral to the attorney general.”

DEEP staff could not identify any recent enforcemen­t actions that led to penalties assessed on waste haulers.

Brendan Schain, a lawyer with DEEP, said the agency still is evaluating whether to make a referral to the attorney general. If it does, it becomes an action brought on behalf of the commission­er of DEEP, not MIRA.

“MIRA has done a lot of work,” Schain said. “But because it becomes an action, the commission­er versus the defendants, how much of that work do we need to redo? We need to understand everything that they’ve done. We need to have our people in position to serve as resources in that litigation.”

MIRA and the municipali­ties can sue the haulers.

“Are we uniquely bestpositi­oned to bring this enforcemen­t action about municipal ordinances and, really, MIRA contracts?” Schain said.

Typically, the agency makes referrals to the attorney general when a person or business is not complying with an enforcemen­t order.

“What MIRA is asking us to do is make a referral to the attorney general’s office on the basis of their investigat­ion and on the basis of violations of municipal ordinances, not statutes or regulation­s administer­ed by the department,” Schain said.

Schain said the question is not the quality of MIRA’s investigat­ion, which he called extensive. No decision has been made on whether to make DEEP part of a case against the haulers.

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