By Ian Round
Capital News Service
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has signed a bill to tighten toxic emissions standards on the two trash incinerators in the city, where the health department has documented that residents breathe some of the country’s dirtiest air.
“I want clean air,” she told a small audience in New York City recently. The Energy Justice Network, which advocated for the bill, shared the video of her speech on Facebook. Her signature on the bill came on March 7.
But one price of cleaner air may be that the city’s main trash incinerator will close. Wheelabrator Baltimore, which burns the majority of the region’s trash and is the 10th-biggest incinerator in the country, said the regulations in the Baltimore Clean Air Act could put them out of business.
Pugh said the Wheelabrator incinerator “is going to be shut down.”
The City Council unanimously passed the bill without debate and without a roll call vote Feb 11.
“We don’t want them to close down,” said Councilman Edward Reisinger, the bill’s sponsor, whose district includes Wheelabrator. “We just want them to retrofit the facility to try to get the emissions down because they’re the number one polluter in the city of Baltimore.”
Retrofitting is not possible, said Jim Connolly, Wheelabrator’s vice president of environment, health and safety, because of the age of the facility, which began operating in 1985. He said the law will cause 65 full-time employees to lose their jobs.
“By enacting this legislation, the City has acted against the environmental and economic interests of city residents,” he wrote in a statement March 8. “The city will lose valuable direct and indirect revenue from Wheelabrator Baltimore each year.”
In a written statement last month, he told the council that the standards were “unachievable.”
The legislation affects both the Wheelabrator facility, where its smokestack greets visitors to the city from the south on Interstate 95, and Curtis Bay Energy, the largest medical waste incinerator in the country, which burns waste from Canada and states across the eastern U.S.
The two facilities have until the first day of 2022 to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions to less than a third of current levels. The bill allows them to emit 45 parts per million of nitrogen oxides over a 24-hour period and 40 parts per million averaged over 12 months. Mercury, sulfur dioxides and dioxins/furans are also restricted. Owners will have to install a system to monitor emissions, report minute-by-minute data and hire an independent contractor to conduct quarterly inspections.
Councilman Ryan Dorsey said air quality laws aren’t strict enough. “We meet the federal and state thresholds,” he said, “but that’s a floor, not a ceiling, for the limitations we can create.”
If the Wheelabrator plant closes, the 700,000 tons of trash it burns every year will have to find a new home, and competition among landfills will increase. The city estimates it could cost roughly $15 million a year in payments from the incinerator and lead to a shorter lifespan for the city-owned Quarantine Road landfill, which would take raw garbage instead of ash produced by the incinerator.
Rudolph Chow, the director of the Department of Public Works, wrote in a memo to the council that the city could have to pay to ship trash to the counties or out of state. If Wheelabrator made the changes, he wrote it would probably have to close “for some indeterminate period.”
As a waste-to-energy incinerator, Wheelabrator benefits from the same state tax credits that producers of wind and solar energy do. In addition, shipping trash would generate more pollution from the trucks hauling it, Connolly stated.
Mike Ewall, the founder and executive director of the Energy Justice Network, said in a phone call that compared to the emissions from the incinerator, truck exhaust would be “pretty insignificant.” Landfills are a “less bad” way to manage waste than incinerators, he said.
Baltimore is among the top 1 percent most-polluted American cities, according to the EPA. Mary Beth Haller, the interim commissioner of the Baltimore City Health Department, wrote in a Jan. 28 memo to City Council that it was “imperative” that the city pass stricter air quality standards.
“Baltimore City has become one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. with respect to air quality,” she wrote.
Citing data from the health department, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America and other sources, Haller wrote that a fifth of children — twice the national average — and one in nine adults in Baltimore have asthma. Plus, she said, pollutants cause or worsen asthma and other respiratory diseases and disproportionately affect African-Americans.
Pugh echoed those concerns in the video.
“What we have done to American cities,” she said, “and what we’ve done to urban communities, and the lack of concern about the diversity of our economy and the people who live in our cities is unconscionable.”
Wheelabrator has donated regularly to Maryland lawmakers over the past six months, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections. It donated $1,000 to Pugh last month and $500 to council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young in November 2018. Other recipients include council members John Bullock ($150), Sharon Middleton ($100) and Leon Pinkett ($100); Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller ($1,000); and Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch ($1,000).
Councilman Eric Costello declined to comment. Costello co-sponsored the bill, but abstained from voting at the Feb. 4 meeting due to concerns about the cost. The bill passed 12-1 at that meeting, with Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer voting no.
“We can do better,” Dorsey said. “I doubt that anybody else would want these facilities in their communities outside of Baltimore City.”