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Portsmouth waste-to-energy plant closes, with trash now heading to landfill

The Wheelabrator plant in Portsmouth, which is set to close at the end of June. (Photo by Katherine Hafner)
Photo by Katherine Hafner
The waste-to-energy plant in Portsmouth as seen in 2022. The plant formerly known as Wheelabrator officially closed its doors over the weekend.

The Southeastern Public Service Authority is now weighing bids to change how it handles trash disposal moving forward.

For decades, much of the trash collected in Southside Hampton Roads has been burned for steam energy at a plant in Portsmouth.

But the plant, formerly known as Wheelabrator, officially closed over the weekend and will now be demolished.

That means all that trash — thousands of tons each day — is instead going to the Regional Landfill in Suffolk, while space there continues to shrink.

“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,” Dennis Bagley, executive director of the Southeastern Public Service Authority, previously told WHRO.

The organization handles waste for Norfolk, Chesapeake, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, Franklin and the counties of Southampton and Isle of Wight.

Until recently, more than 80% of the trash that goes through SPSA facilities had been going to the Wheelabrator plant, 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.

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

The change puts more pressure on the landfill, which is projected to run out of space by late 2026. That doesn’t include new cells currently being constructed and permitted. (SPSA is currently negotiating with state and federal authorities over impacts to wetlands.)

Bagley said the goal is to find a way to eventually eliminate the need for a landfill altogether, turning to other options like heating up trash to sterilize it and turning it into gas, making organics into bio-char that can store carbon or extracting recyclables straight from the trash.

SPSA launched a bidding process for a new contract earlier this year and is now considering six vendors.

The authority will receive $5 million because of the Portsmouth plant’s early contract termination, and plans to turn an adjoining part of the property into a new transfer station.

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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