KEILA TORRES OCASIO
Luis Rullan's fingers worked the knobs on either side of his seat as he stared intently at two 50-foot mountains of garbage on either side of his glassed-in room on the Wheelabrator Bridgeport plant's fifth floor on a recent day.
"The room holds 13,000 tons of trash," said Mike Prutting, the day shift supervisor. "There are about 10,500 or 11,000 tons now. Right?"
"Just about," Rullan answered, his fingers maneuvering a large crane - like those used to pick toys out of prize machines - to lift old mattresses, pieces of wood, torn clothes and garbage bags.
With another twist, Rullan dumped them into the feeder hopper, a vent leading to the combustion grater where the garbage is burned at 2,250 degrees Fahrenheit. That is the start of the process that converts 2,200 tons of the region's waste into more than 67,000 kilowatts of electricity daily.
"It's a good place to work," said Rullan, who has been employed at the plant for 25 years. "I love it here."
The company recently marked its silver anniversary and honored its employees with a celebration, lunch and guided tours of the facility.
"The green vision for Bridgeport started right here 25 years ago," Mayor Bill Finch said.
The site is also a boon for the city's tax rolls, topping the top taxpayer list each year with a property assessment of $282 million, not including personal property. And it employs many Bridgeport residents, including Rullan.
One employee, Jaime Rodriguez, walked three and a half hours from his Bridgeport home to the Howard Avenue plant days after a February blizzard paralyzed the city for nearly a week.
"The employees are the foundation of the business," said Vin Langone, regional vice president for Wheelabrator Technologies Inc.
Plans are in the works to expand the business' scope in the city by using the heat left over after the trash is converted to energy to heat homes and businesses downtown. Around 250 degrees, the heat is released as steam from the company's tall stacks.
"Instead of only generating electricity, we're talking about sending out heat through a piping network," Langone said.
The South End site is owned by Wheelabrator Technologies Inc., which has 17 waste-to-energy facilities and four power plants throughout the nation. In the last five years, the company has expanded internationally with operations in the United Kingdom and China.
Over the last 25 years, the plant has processed 18.5 million tons of waste - enough to fill tractor-trailer trucks lined up from Bridgeport to Honolulu - and generated 13 million megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than 2 million Xbox gaming systems for a year.
That fact was fascinating to the 12 middle-schoolers sitting nearby listening, members of Park City Magnet School's Green Squad. The children were sponsored by Wheelabrator to participate in an environmental symposium in Florida, something the company has done for decades.
Soon after the celebration began winding down, attendees began dispersing or taking their places at the buffet line for lunch.
But not Rullan.
He mingled for a few minutes, before finding his way back inside, grabbing his white hard hat, ear plugs and safety glasses and returning to his seat at the start of the waste-to-energy process.
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