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Facing surge in landfill trash, Hampton Roads waste authority searching for long-term solutions

The Wheelabrator plant in Portsmouth, which is set to close at the end of June. (Photo by Katherine Hafner)
The Wheelabrator plant in Portsmouth, which is set to close at the end of June. (Photo by Katherine Hafner)

The way much of Hampton Roads disposes of its trash is about to get a massive overhaul. 

For decades, the Southeastern Public Service Authority has taken most of the trash it collects across the Southside to a plant in Portsmouth that burns it for steam energy. 

That plant’s closing at the end of June, leaving the waste authority to take over a thousand tons more trash each day to the Regional Landfill in Suffolk.

SPSA’s already working to expand the landfill, which will run out of space in a couple years. 

But long-term, officials are looking for ways to avoid the landfill altogether, said executive director Dennis Bagley.

“That sounds funny coming from a waste organization, right?” Bagley said. “But our philosophy is to find a solution to the problem. Putting waste in the landfill is only kicking the can down the road.”

What’s happening now 

SPSA handles trash for Norfolk, Chesapeake, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, Franklin and the counties of Southampton and Isle of Wight.

More than 80% of the trash that goes through SPSA facilities had been going to the Wheelabrator plant in Portsmouth, which was built by the Navy in the 1980s to produce steam energy for the shipyard. The plant changed hands over the years but maintained that purpose.

Diverting all that waste “drastically increases the life expectancy of permitted cells located at the Regional Landfill,” SPSA writes on its website. 

But a few years ago, the Navy announced it was breaking ground on its own energy plant at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, one powered by natural gas instead of trash. Without its largest customer, Wheelabrator announced it would have to close. 

That set off alarm bells for SPSA, Bagley said.

“We’ve been working feverishly to try to develop a plan to do something else, because all of our strategies were based on using Wheelabrator through 2027 at least, and then hopefully renewing that.”

The agency has been working to expand the Suffolk landfill by about 170 acres. One section is under construction with another larger area awaiting permitting.

Officials currently expect to run out of landfill space in late 2026, not including the cell currently being constructed. 

Bagley said there’s no danger of ending up with nowhere to put the trash. In a worst case scenario, SPSA can offload some to private landfills. 

When Wheelabrator closes this summer, there won’t be a corresponding increase of 80% to the landfill. A fire at the Wheelabrator plant in 2022 cut back its capacity, meaning SPSA is currently only dropping off less than half of what it was before there. 

The waste-to-energy plant, which is on shipyard property, will be razed later this year. But SPSA plans to take over the adjoining part of the Wheelabrator operation for a new transfer station.

Meanwhile at the landfill, SPSA recently launched an on-site facility that captures greenhouse gases like methane and turns them into renewable natural gas. 

The authority’s also planning a $39 million new flyover ramp to the landfill to reduce crossover traffic along Route 58.

Transforming trash of the future 

While working to expand the landfill, SPSA is now seeking vendors for a contract that would help eliminate the need for it.

The authority’s soliciting bids to handle its waste through something other than landfilling. 

Bagley said that could include processes that heat up trash to sterilize it, or turn it into gas, or make organics into bio-char that can store carbon.  

Finding a different option will eventually be necessary, because the landfill cannot be expanded beyond what’s underway. 

Though the immediate expansion will likely last decades, another 150-acre area reserved for long-term expansion now must be preserved as wetlands – a tradeoff SPSA made in order to get environmental permits for the current plans, Bagley said.  

Many vendors seem interested in first screening the trash they collect for recyclable materials. That could eventually get rid of separate recycling bins in Hampton Roads.

“We believe that blue can recycling is a process that's really overstayed its welcome,” Bagley said. “There’s better ways to recycle.”

The conversations come while many local governments are trying to decide what to do about their own recycling programs. 

Chesapeake got rid of curbside recycling to save money a couple years ago. Recycling contracts in Norfolk and Virginia Beach expire this year, and the cities have said the costs of keeping curbside service will likely skyrocket. In surveys, residents of the cities overwhelmingly say they want to keep curbside recycling and would pay more to do so.

Virginia Beach public works director L.J. Hansen recently told City Council members that they should keep an eye on SPSA’s opportunity to combine all waste in one stream.

“That is something we should be considering long term,” Hansen said.

This is not the first time SPSA has tried overhauling its waste system. Eight years ago, SPSA selected a startup company called RePower South to handle waste. 

RePower planned to build a $100 million complex in Chesapeake that would separate recyclables from the main garbage stream and turn what remained into pellets that could fuel power plants, the Virginian-Pilot reported at the time.

But the authority terminated the contract after the company missed deadlines and could not find a buyer for its product. There was legal action on both sides, and “it was a mess,” Bagley said.

This time, Bagley said he thinks the market’s ready for something more innovative. 

No matter what they end up pursuing, it’s “a big, big change in what we've been doing.”

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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