Baltimore’s trash incinerator must drastically reduce its chemical emissions to comply with a bill passed unanimously by the Baltimore City Council on Monday night, which plant officials say may force it to close down.
Emissions from the incinerator, built in 1985 and operated by the New Hampshire-based company Wheelabrator, are the number one source of stationary air pollution in the city.
Dubbed the “Clean Air Act,” the bill represents a forceful assertion of city authority on an issue–pollution limits–that up until now has largely been left up to the state to regulate.
“It’s a great victory for the citizens of Baltimore,” Councilman Edward Reisinger, the bill’s sponsor, told Baltimore Fishbowl after the vote. Reisinger, whose district includes two incinerators, said his constituents have complained to him for years about their toxic effects on air quality. “This is the right thing to do,” he added.
The Wheelabrator facility burns over 700,000 tons of solid waste annually, including a majority of Baltimore’s household trash, as well as smaller amounts from other counties and states, creating steam that is used to heat buildings downtown. It also spits out a host of harmful pollutants, including sulfur, mercury, formaldehyde and lead, which are linked to respiratory diseases like asthma. Baltimore’s asthma rate is three times the national average.
Wheelabrator insists that the new regulations are impossible to meet and that landfilling “will become the only option for the city.” In a statement, Jim Connolly, the firm’s vice president of environmental, health and safety, warned that “this bill will result in 37,000 new tractor-trailer trips on local roadways to transport the city’s waste to landfills with limited capacity”–though it’s not clear where that number comes from.
It’s not known where Baltimore would redirect its trash if the incinerator were to close when the bill takes effect in 2020, or in 2022 when further limits kick in and Wheelabrator’s contract with the city expires. The Department of Public Works estimates that it would cost the city $13 million more per year to expand the Hawkins Point landfill, which is currently projected to reach capacity by 2026, and even more to truck the waste to landfills in surrounding counties.
But that’s assuming waste levels remain the same.
“There’s been a lot of momentum in the city with people who are taking on this zero waste challenge,” said Destiny Watford, an organizer with United Workers, who led a successful campaign in 2016 to stop the construction of a new incinerator planned for her Curtis Bay neighborhood. Instead, the community opened a youth-led composting service.
As much as 82 percent of Baltimore’s solid waste could be recycled or composted, according to a 2017 report by the Institute for Local Self Reliance.
While city officials have expressed support for developing a zero-waste plan, little concrete action has been taken. The mayor has called for an 80 percent reduction in residential food waste by 2040 and a twofold increase in recycling (Baltimore’s residential recycling rate is 28 percent, which is slightly under the national average of 35 percent.)
“This Clean Air Act passing shows that we are on the right track,” Watford said, adding that the city must now make strong moves to ensure a “just transition” away from incineration, such as building a public composting facility.
But until that happens, the trash has to go somewhere. Baltimore produced roughly 220,000 tons of residential solid waste in 2017, according to data provided by DPW. About three-quarters of that was burned at Wheelabrator and one-quarter sent to the city landfill, which also receives hundreds of thousands of tons of ash byproduct from the incinerator each year.
Putting trash in a landfill was considered worse than burning it by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration, and the State of Maryland includes incineration in its renewable energy portfolio standard, which has allowed Wheelabrator to collect $10 million in state clean energy incentives, as reported by the The Sun.
Previous state regulations considered but never enacted by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) have focused on nitrogen oxide, calling for more modest cuts that would bring Maryland in line with many other states’ limit of 150 parts per million (ppm). Wheelabrator has issued inconsistent statements about whether it could meet such limits and how much doing so would cost.
In 2017, Timothy Porter, director of air quality programs for Wheelabrator, said at an MDE hearing that the 150 ppm limit would require rebuilding the boiler “from the bottom up.” However, in a statement to Fishbowl last September, Connolly wrote that it could be accomplished “through additional optimization of our existing control systems.” Porter also warned in 2017 that the 150 ppm limit could shut them down.
The nitrogen oxide caps in the city’s bill are 45 ppm–three times as strong as MDE’s proposal. (A representative from MDE declined to comment on the new legislation.)
“Based on what I’ve read, in order to meet these restrictions you’d need to be building a brand new incinerator,” Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke told Baltimore Fishbowl on Monday. “And we’re not in the market for that, and I don’t think Wheelabrator is either.”
The council has called on the facility to upgrade its pollution controls before, and has issued requests for state action–but this is the first binding legislation it has issued regulating the facility.
“If I had a magic wand, I’d close BRESCO tomorrow,” Reisinger told a small crowd last September, as MDE moved forward with plans to cut emissions at the facility by one fifth. Advocates felt strongly that those rules, which had been under consideration for years, didn’t go far enough.
South Baltimore is uniquely affected by air pollution. Residents of Curtis Bay breathe some of the most polluted air in the country, according to EPA data. The bill also affects a nearby medical waste incinerator, Curtis Bay Energy.
For Watford and other activists who grew up in the shadow of the incinerator’s smokestack, this day was a long time in the making. “We’ve been fighting for our basic right to breathe clean air since 2012,” she said.
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