Wheelabrator trash plant closes as regional waste authority pushes for new solutions – The Virginian-Pilot

PORTSMOUTH — A plant that spent decades burning much of South Hampton Roads’ trash is now closed, meaning 1,500 tons of trash daily will be redirected to a landfill slated to reach capacity by the end of next year.

The WIN Waste plant, formerly known as the Wheelabrator facility, closed this week and will be demolished over the next several months. For decades, it had been burning 80% of the region’s trash and converting it into steam energy for the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. Then, 30% of the ash left over was diverted to the landfill. But with the plant closure, now a daily average of 1,500 tons of waste is being sent to the regional landfill in Suffolk, according to Dennis Bagley, executive director of the Southeastern Public Service Authority.

The authority handles waste for Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Virginia Beach, in addition to surrounding localities such as Franklin and Southampton and Isle of Wight counties. Bagley said SPSA managed about 480,000 tons of the region’s municipal waste in the last fiscal year.

The impending closure has been known for years. In 2020, the Navy announced it would be ending its contract with Wheelabrator and would build its own natural gas plant to power the shipyard. That loss of revenue led to WIN Waste officials determining the Portsmouth plant would be unable to remain operable through 2027, when the contract was slated to end.

With the added pressure to the regional landfill, it’s on track to run out of room by late 2026 instead of 2028, as previously anticipated. SPSA is working on a plan to open up new “cells” — the portions of a landfill where the trash is layered with materials to mitigate the environmental impact.

But even additional cells can only prolong the landfill’s life for so long. Bagley said he sees the plant closure as an “opportunity” for the region to think about new ways to manage waste beyond dumping it all in a landfill, where space could completely run out by 2061. Repurposing the waste, like what the Wheelabrator facility had been doing, reduces the overall amount. And as cities like Chesapeake weigh the restoration of city recycling services, Bagley said an all-in-one solution, such as a single-stream, mixed waste sorting facility, could be the future.

The authority is undergoing a bidding process to select a new vendor that could process, recycle, reuse and/or dispose of 100% of the region’s waste.

The waste-to-energy facility will be demolished, Bagley said, and the land will be returned to the Navy. As part of a negotiation on an early termination fee in the contract with WIN Waste, SPSA will receive $5.2 million and convert the neighboring Refuse Derived Fuel plant into Portsmouth’s first transfer station. These kinds of plants process waste into small pieces that can act as “fuel” that can later be used for steam and electricity.

Natalie Anderson, 757-732-1133, natalie.anderson@virigniamedia.com

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