Even if it wasn't Philip Armetta behind the recently revealed plans to build construction-debris recycling plants and ash landfills in Lisbon and Middletown, the venture might raise eyebrows given the fragile economy and general perceptions about such dumps.
The last time somebody proposed an ash landfill — the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority pressed hard to build a 100-acre dump near the Shetucket River in Franklin in 2009 — townspeople dug in, got the governor and attorney general on their side and defeated the project.
But Armetta, whose Middletown-based trash-hauling business, Dainty Rubbish Service, made him a household name in garbage in central Connecticut, would seem to have his own disadvantages.
The $15 million Lisbon project is Armetta's first new undertaking since he was indicted in 2006 in a sweeping federal crackdown on racketeering in Connecticut's trash-hauling business.
Though Armetta has had a largely successful and profitable 50-year run in the garbage and real-estate development games, his guilty plea to a felony in 2007 hurt his reputation and forced him to place into a trust his ownership stake in the $1 billion Kleen Energy power plant in Middletown — a project he conceived — and to transfer the reins of Dainty Rubbish to his daughter and two sons.
He's also butted heads in the past with state environmental regulators, and the permit process for his proposed 30-acre ash landfill — burying ash from trash incinerators — promises to be arduous.
But the planets just might be lining up for the Brooklyn-born former taxi driver as he prepares his pitch to the town of Lisbon and the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Armetta has an inside track on financing from a small regional trash authority. He already has developed a trash-burning plant in Lisbon that has been virtually problem-free. He has solid political support for the Middletown portion of the endeavor.
And he's still a consummate salesman, able to talk for long stretches without a stumble about the 1,000-mile round trips his rubbish trucks must make to landfills in Ohio because there are so few places left to dump in Connecticut, and about how garbage, handled smartly, can encourage development and create jobs.
At 80, he just might find his stride again, despite his recent travails.
A Felony Rap
In 2006, conversations he had with an undercover FBI agent posing as an employee of another trash-hauler resulted in his arrest as a fringe player in a sprawling, statewide investigation of price-fixing rackets in the garbage business. The federal case centered mostly on trash company owner James Galante and his associates in Danbury.
Armetta originally was charged with extortion. As he walked out of the federal courtroom in New Haven after his arraignment, two agents approached, and one said, "There's still time, Phil'' — an indication that the law officers hoped Armetta could help them with the larger case.
But he maintained over the next months that he had nothing to offer, and eventually he accepted a plea deal in 2007. He admitted to a single count of concealing knowledge of a felony and was sentenced to three months in prison and three months of home confinement.
At age 77, he had a felony rap. His partners at Kleen Energy convinced him that his legal troubles would scare off the big-money investors that were starting to line up behind the project. He agreed to the establishment of the trust, and relinquished control over day-to-day operations.
He still makes the investors wince when he says, as he did the other day, that he's "the originator of that project. I brought everybody in. It's still my project.''
Those assertions aren't necessarily winning him friends these days, given that the nearly complete power plant exploded in February 2010, killing six workers and injuring several dozen in Connecticut's worst industrial accident in years. With Armetta relegated to the background, the 620-megawatt plant has been rebuilt, and the operators, faced with a string of wrongful-death lawsuits, are testing the turbines in preparation to start selling electricity
Armetta also has acknowledged impatience and frustration in dealing with state regulators. He was penalized nearly $355,000 by the Department of Environmental Protection in 1995 for violations at his former landfill in Middletown.
So with this mixed history, Armetta, now 80, begins what might be his last big play.
"I don't think I'm disrespected,'' Armetta said the other day in the office he still keeps at Dainty Rubbish. "I can walk down any street, look anyone in the eye and know my projects have generated millions of dollars in taxes, helped the environment, and created jobs.