Preston officials embrace once-dreaded trash-burning plant

Preston - It would have been unthinkable 20 years ago for the town's top elected officials to make the statements uttered last week by First Selectman Robert Congdon and fellow members of the Board of Selectmen.

"It is in Preston's best interest to keep this plant in operation," Congdon said of the regional trash incinerator on Route 12, on the banks of the Thames River.

"Covanta has been a great neighbor," he later added.

When the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resources Recovery Authority chose the Preston location for the garbage incinerator in the 1980s, the town responded with a loud outcry expressing fears of environmental and health hazards and convoys of garbage trucks spewing both diesel fumes and litter. Lawsuits ultimately failed, and in 1992 Preston reached a host town agreement with the authority.

Congdon took office 18 years ago amid continued complaints from residents about the noise, smell and contamination. He set up meetings with then-plant operator American Ref-Fuel. A citizens' committee was formed, and plant operators addressed the concerns, he said. Complaints slowly went away.

Now, as the contract between SCRRRA and Covanta nears expiration, Preston wants to encourage the parties to negotiate a new deal with a sense of urgency. The Board of Selectmen last week endorsed Selectman Lynwood Crary's motion to ask the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments to request an update from SCRRRA on the contract negotiations.

Preston's desire for a speedy resolution to the contract talks stems from its own separate need to negotiate a new host town agreement with the plant operator. If a new contract is negotiated between Covanta and SCRRRA, Covanta would own the plant, rather than the authority.

Preston started negotiations with Covanta officials for a new host town agreement, but can't progress without knowing whether the authority and Covanta will reach a deal.

Preston now receives annual payments in lieu of taxes from SCRRRA. The town is receiving $825,022 this year and $866,272 next fiscal year. Preston also is allowed to dispose of 1,000 tons of garbage per year at no cost. The town pays the regular $58 per ton tipping fee for the other approximately 1,000 tons the town generates per year, Congdon said.

As a SCRRRA member town, Preston also gets to use the authority's large brush-chipping machine, a Freon removal program for junked refrigerators and household hazardous waste collections.

The contract between SCRRRA and Covanta was set to expire in February 2015, but SCRRRA already has exercised its two-year extension to 2017, said authority Chairman John Phetteplace, who is also Stonington's public works director. Collectively, the authority last year sent 135,000 tons of garbage to the plant, and Covanta brought in outside waste to operate at the plant's 250,000-ton capacity.

Phetteplace disagreed with Preston's call for urgency and also didn't feel the need to involve the Council of Governments.

SCRRRA has 12 member towns, including Preston, and representatives who attend monthly authority meetings hear regular reports on the progress of the negotiations. Congdon is Preston's representative and hasn't attended meetings in many months, Phetteplace said.

"We have sent notification to Covanta that we are interested in pursuing an agreement," Phetteplace said. "We have met all the contractual obligations going forward. All the communities have signed the extended service period that has already been acted on to 2017, and that we would be interested in a renewal. And they (Covanta) sent one back saying they want to continue."

Phetteplace said he is comfortable with the progress of negotiations to date. He declined to discuss alternatives if talks with Covanta break down.

Covanta vice president for strategic services Steve Diaz could not be reached for comment.

Congdon said 2017 is not far away when it comes to negotiating a long-term deal. He said the issue is of wide regional importance, and a report to Council of Governments would allow leaders from all southeastern Connecticut towns to be updated on the future of the incinerator.

Congdon said alternative scenarios Preston would not want to see include converting the incinerator property into a transfer station and trucking the region's waste elsewhere or seeing Covanta sell the plant to another operator.

"Preston has a vested interest in this plant staying in operation," Congdon said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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