Laqeisha Greene’s children suffer from asthma, and she said they’ve been hospitalized for it three times in the past year and a half.
“My children can’t go outside to play,” the South Baltimore resident said, “because of these emissions that are being produced by BRESCO.”
BRESCO, or Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Company, is the trash-burning incinerator, recognized by its white smokestack visible from I-95.
Greene, along with dozens of other activists and residents who live close to the incinerator, came to a public hearing Friday morning on a proposed rule change lowering emissions limits for incinerators to share their grievances with Baltimore’s largest industrial polluter.
The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) predicts the tighter limits, which cap nitrous oxide emissions at 150 parts per million (ppm) will lower BRESCO’s emissions by 200 tons annually, but residents and activists urged MDE to take further action.
Nitrous oxide emissions contribute to ground level ozone, a pollutant that worsens respiratory problems like asthma. Baltimore has struggled to meet federal ozone limits over the last decade, and currently does not meet the most recent levels set by the EPA in 2015.
Operated by the New Hampshire-based company Wheelabrator Technologies, BRESCO is the city’s largest industrial polluter, and now it must cut its emissions of nitrous oxide by around 20 percent to comply with new state limits.
Air pollution is one of the reasons that Baltimore City’s rates of asthma hospitalization are almost three times the national average, as a 2017 report by the Environmental Integrity Project showed.
The health effects are hardest felt in Curtis Bay and other South Baltimore neighborhoods, where residents inhale air ranked in the top 20 nationally for containing the most toxic emissions, according to the EPA.
Some 700,000 tons of Baltimore’s trash are burned each year at the incinerator, producing steam that is then sold to heat and cool buildings in downtown. BRESCO emits around 1,100 tons of nitrous oxide every year, about twice the amount of Maryland’s one other large-scale incinerator. New emissions limits would bring Maryland in line with other states like New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts. The new rules also require Wheelabrator to conduct a feasibility study aimed at cutting emissions further in 2020.
Many at the hearing expressed concerned over state subsidies Wheelabrator receives for renewable energy–nearly $10 million over the past six years, according to The Sun’s Scott Dance. This is in addition to the $52 per ton the city pays Whelabrator to burn trash.
Incineration–or “waste-to-energy” in industry-speak–is considered a renewable energy source by Maryland and 30 other states.
One resident called the notion that burning trash is renewable energy “a complete joke.”
“You can’t put a windmill on a dumpster fire and call it clean,” said Heather Moyer, a longtime Morrell Park resident.
The phrase “waste-to-energy” is a misnomer, said Kevin Kriescher, a physics teacher, because while Wheelabrator produces energy, it also produces “a huge amount of incredibly more toxic waste.”
In 2011, the BRESCO incinerator sent over 200,000 tons of toxic ash to the city’s landfill at Hawkins Point, according the Department of Public Works’ most recent 10-year solid waste plan, accounting for about 58 percent of all solid waste accepted by the landfill that year. Wheelabrator processed around 701,000 tons of waste that year.
Kriescher and others stressed the inefficiency of burning trash as a means of energy production.
“Per unit of energy generated it is a bigger nitrous oxide polluter than any of the state’s coal plants, and a much larger polluter than Maryland’s other incinerator in Montgomery County,” said Leah Kelly, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project.
Under the new regulation, BRESCO’s emission limits are more lenient than for the state’s other incinerator, the Montgomery County Resource Recovery Facility (MCRRF). MCRRF was able to cut emissions in half after installing more modern low-nitrous oxide technology in 2009. BRESCO’s emissions have stayed constant for the past decade.
Randy Mosier, chief regulator at the MDE, said the discrepancy is because BRESCO is an older facility with more “technical limitations.”
While no representatives from Wheelabrator spoke at the hearing Friday, company executive Jim Connolly wrote in an emailed statement to Baltimore Fishbowl, “The proposed standard can be achieved through additional optimization of our existing control systems.”
In past meetings, however, Wheelabrator has argued that it can only reduce emissions from 180 to 170 ppm, and that further reductions would require prohibitively expensive low-nitrous oxide technology, according to the Baltimore Brew.
Kelly called the new pollution limits, which take effect in 2019, “a good start.” She added, “But it’s not enough.”
Among those who spoke Friday, the overwhelming sentiment was toward moving away from incineration entirely. Many told personal stories of asthma attacks and chronic respiratory disease, which they felt were amplified in their neighborhood.
The Environmental Integrity Project report also found evidence of localized effects of air pollution in two South Baltimore zip codes near coal-fired power plants. These neighborhoods saw a 57 percent drop in asthma hospitalizations in a five-year period, following a 2009 regulation requiring pollution control upgrades in the plants.
“While you are making these regulations, we are living in a laboratory experiment,” said Andrew Hinns, a South Baltimore resident. Looking two MDE officials straight in the eye, he added, “I don’t appreciate being part of a laboratory experiment.”
At a rally in Carroll Park* before the hearing, City Councilwoman Mary Part Clarke, one of the most vocal of the many council members calling for tougher regulations on the city’s largest industrial polluter, told a crowd of South Baltimore residents and activists what she thought of MDE’s incremental steps.
“Oh man, slow.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified the location of the rally as Morrell Park. It was in Carroll Park. Baltimore Fishbowl regrets the error.