Baltimore City Council passes bill to regulate trash incinerators

By WILLIAM EDMONDS | February 7, 2019

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WELP.SK / CC-BY-SA-3.0 Environment Maryland data says Baltimore air pollution is among the top 10 worst in the nation.

The Baltimore City Council voted to approve a bill that would require trash incinerators in the city to either abide by stricter environmental regulations or shut down on Monday, Feb. 4. After a two-month long process that started on Nov. 19, 2018, the Land Use and Transportation Committee voted unanimously on Jan. 30 to send the bill to the full City Council for approval. After the City Council passed the bill 12-1, a final vote remains and is to be held on Feb. 11.

The Baltimore Clean Air Act was proposed by the Clean Air Baltimore Coalition, a group managed by the national nonprofit organization Energy Justice Network. Clean Air Baltimore hosted a rally before the Land Use and Transportation Committee vote on Wednesday, Jan. 30. However, the rally was cut short because of below-freezing weather. After the rally, Baltimore residents entered the City Hall building to give their testimony.

Although some believe that the incinerators that the bill would target — the Wheelabrator Baltimore incinerator plant and the Curtis Bay Medical Waste Services facility — currently meet emissions standards and create jobs for Baltimore residents, many argue that the incinerators are polluting the city and jeopardizing residents’ health.

Several others suggested that the Wheelabrator facility is also part of a legacy of environmental discrimination. When the Wheelabrator plant was built, according to Census data, 30 percent of residents in the neighborhood surrounding it lived below the poverty line. Most of the neighborhoods surrounding the plant are currently predominantly African American and low-income.

James Alston, a resident of the Westport neighborhood near the plant, testified in support of the bill because he felt an obligation to his family and the Baltimore community.

“Why do I support this bill? Because I live in the footsteps of an incinerator that has been spewing pollutants at my community for more than 30 years. Because I have a sister who was born with cancer. Because I have a father who also lived in Westport and died of cancer. Because I myself have had so many respiratory illnesses since moving back to Westport. Because I care about the health outcomes of my community and my city. Because I have a moral obligation to humanity,” he said.

The Clean Air Act, if voted into law on Feb. 11, would raise emissions standards for solid waste incinerators that process more than 25 tons of waste per day. Such incinerators would also be required to continuously monitor pollutant levels and install pollution controls in their facilities. 

Critics of the bill, however, emphasized that the level of regulation proposed would force Wheelabrator and Curtis Bay to shut down, which in turn would hurt the environment. If the plants were shut down, Wheelabrator Vice President of Environment, Health and Safety Jim Connolly argued that the alternative waste disposal method of using landfills would be detrimental.

“Passing, unamended, will certainly have the effect of closing Wheelabrator and will be a choice by the Council of long haul disposal — 37,000 trucks a year taking the waste out of the city to a landfill far away,” he said.

Several other testimonies asserted that incinerators like Wheelabrator are less environmentally harmful than landfills because of the energy they generate by using waste as fuel. Under the Maryland Renewable Energy Portfolio, Wheelabrator receives millions every year in green energy subsidies for its contribution to the waste-to-energy sector.

Ted Michaels, the president of the Energy Recovery Council, the national trade association that represents companies and local governments in the waste-to-energy sector, felt that the bill would also have a negative impact on the Baltimore economy.

“[The bill] would jeopardize the long-term viability of waste-to-energy in Baltimore and as a result, could potentially be denied the benefits of clean, renewable energy production,” he said. “Waste-to-energy facilities provide stable, long-term, well-paid jobs while simultaneously injecting dollars into local economies.”

Wheelabrator Environmental Health and Safety Manager Bradley Keller agreed, adding that environmental regulations should target all sources of air pollution instead of just incinerators.

“This bill is designed to close the Wheelabrator facility and take away my job and the job of 65 other people,” he said. “It is not a clean air act; a true clean air act would contain fair and equitable emissions enforcement for all sources of air pollution.”

Bill supporters, on the other hand, pointed to data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Emissions Inventory, which showed that 36 percent of Baltimore’s air pollution from industrial sources comes from Wheelabrator, making it the largest air polluter in the city. 

Despite the statistics, several employees from both Wheelabrator and Curtis Bay contended that increased regulatory standards would cause them to lose their jobs, which in turn would endanger their families. 

One such employee was Kerney Spencer, who has worked at Curtis Bay for the past 20 years.

“After I came out of prison nobody wanted to hire me, and Curtis Bay gave me a shot,” he said. “I moved up the ranks from floor supervisor up to regional president. I’ve been there 20 years; I breathed the air they’re talking about... but it hasn’t done anything to me.”

Bill supporters, however, cited data from the Environment Maryland Research & Policy Center that ranks Baltimore in the top 10 U.S. metropolitan cities with the worst air quality. Another research study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2013 reported that Baltimore had the highest emissions-related mortality rate — with 130 out of every 100,000 residents likely to die in any given year because of long-term exposure to air pollution.

Baltimore City Health Department Director of Legislative Affairs D’Paul Nibber explained that the department has identified asthma and other air pollution-borne diseases as health epidemics in the city. According to him, though the Health Department could advise residents on how to handle an asthma attack, it could not address the root causes without the Clean Air Act.

“Things that we need more protection around are things like outdoor pollution, the things that our kids are exposed to everyday as soon as they leave their home,” he said.

Nibber’s colleague, Health Department Senior Medical Advisor Dr. Shelly Choo, agreed. She asserted that the bill would help keep residents safe, particularly those who are most vulnerable — like residents with chronic diseases and young children. 

“One of the particles that can be emitted is dioxin — that’s a chemical that’s created during a burning process. These particles can travel long distances, up to hundreds of kilometers, and they can persist in the environment for over 50 to 100 years,” Choo said. “They have been associated with several conditions including birth defects, diabetes, developmental disabilities, reproductive disorders, cancers and they have also been associated with damaging the immune system.”

Correction: The original article said that the Baltimore City Health Department Director of Legislative Affairs is Jeffrey Amoros, when it is in fact D’Paul Nibber.

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