The two sides battling over a trash-burning power plant proposed for south Baltimore came together last night in Curtis Bay, pushing starkly different images of the 120-megawatt facility that a New York company wants to build on the site of an old chemical plant.
Proponents said the Energy Answers International plant would produce “renewable energy,” lift up this struggling area with “green jobs” and millions of dollars worth of infrastructure and set “exciting” records for low emissions.
Environmental groups said those claims are essentially giving “greenwash” treatment to a classic trash incinerator and warned that the facility the state is poised to permit would emit illegal levels of mercury, lead, nitrous oxides and other toxic and unhealthful substances into the community and beyond.
“We respectfully ask that you refrain from using this (green) terminology,” said Kimberly Wilson, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, addressing the Public Service Commission hearing officer and audience of nearly 30 residents, state lawmakers, company representatives and community leaders.
The community association officials and two state lawmakers downplayed concerns about the plant’s environmental impacts and said the facility should be approved for the sake of jobs, money and other community benefits it would bring.
“I hope you don’t shoot it down” said Sen. George W. Della Jr. (D-Baltimore). “Here we are in a recession, here we are in desperate need of jobs.”
The project at the center of the dispute is a nearly $1 billion plant that Albany-based Energy Answers wants to build on the site of the former FMC agricultural chemicals plant in Fairfield. The plant would burn municipal trash, as well as tire chips, demolition debris and auto parts.
In meetings over the past year with community groups, the company has said the plant will provide 200 permanent jobs and hundreds more construction jobs. They said they would add $40 million to the local economy and churn out scholarships and community improvements.
Environmentalists contend the plant will also churn out air pollution – endangering the health of residents in an area already overburdened with the legacy of decades of industrial pollution.
“If built, it would be one of the largest emitters of mercury in the state of Maryland,” said Lisa Lincoln, of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network .
Lincoln’s remarks followed those of project manager Kurt Krammer, who described the steam-generating boiler plant as having state-of-the-art, clean technology.
“One of the most exciting things to me,” Krammer said, “is how it will set seven records for emissions.” He explained how emissions of sulfur dioxide, mercury, lead, nitrogen oxides and other regulated substances would all be below national standards.
Environmentalists cry foul
Opponents, who have threatened to file suit, say the plant will be anything but green.
According to the Environmental Integrity Project, the Public Service Commission is setting special conditions for the company’s permit application that allow it to burn materials not allowed for a “municipal solid waste facility” under the federal Clean Air Act.
“They’re not burning household trash, they’re burning auto scraps and shredded tires,” Wilson said after the meeting. “It’s a way to circumvent the Clean Air Act standards.”
“The commission inexplicably decided to create new definitional terms, such as ‘waste-derived fuel’ that it asserts are acceptable types of waste under the Clean Air Act,” Environmental Integrity said, in a filing to the commission. (That document and others can be found here.)
Wilson said, in her testimony last night, that if the Commission is going to let them burn material that is more appropriate to another type of facility, they should require the company to seek a different type of permit, perhaps as a commercial and industrial solid waste incinerator.
Another objection the environmentalists are voicing is the project’s proximity to two elementary schools. State law requires that solid waste incinerators cannot be built within a mile of elementary or secondary schools. Company officials have said there are no schools within a mile of the plant, but that’s only if one measures out a mile from the facility’s stacks. Measured from the property’s perimeter, the group says, two schools are within a mile of the plant.
Opponents also stressed that the area’s public health has already been harmed by coal piers, factories, animal rendering plants and other industrial businesses near Curtis Bay, Brooklyn and Hawkins Point.
“This area has one of the highest death rates in the state for respiratory diseases,” Wilson said after the meeting. “And now here’s this (plant) that could release 240 pounds of mercury a year?”
Worse problems than pollution
Community leaders who support the project said they think residents of this historically industrial area have moved past concerns about pollution, as waterfront industries have died out and companies left.
“Air pollution used to be an issue decades ago,” said Andy Dize, president of the Community of Curtis Bay Association, telling the audience that today, crime and unemployment are the bigger problems. Dize said he supports the project.
Carol Eshelman, executive dierctor of the Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Coalition, also spoke up for building the facility, noting that 40 percent of area residents are either unemployed or underemployed.
She took issue with air quality staistics and public health data, including reports that suggest residents are suffering from disease due to long-term exposure to industry. Roughly half the population nowadays is transient and, since they haven’t been in the area long, she argued, “any lung conditions they have probably are not caused by ambient conditions.”
Air pollution in the area mostly drifts over from Anne Arundel County, where Constellation Energy’s Brandon Shores coal-fired power plant is located, Eshelman said. Since the plant has installed new pollution controls, she said, that source of air pollution is receding.
The two state lawmakers who spoke, Della and Sen. Brian K. McHale (D-Baltimore), both supported the plant and said they trusted residents and state officials to ensure that the plant does not harm health.
“The people of this community,” Della said, “are pretty darned smart.”
Fast track, to get stimulus dollars
Company officials have said the project will be partially funded by $300 million in stimulus funds, which created a bit of a melodrama when state officials shifted gears and told Energy Answers they had to get a refuse disposal permit, after initially telling them they did not.
The Maryland Department of the Environment last year granted the company an exemption from the requirement to obtain a solid waste disposal permit, but then told them to apply for one in May. If it caused them to miss a deadline for federal aid, it could jeopardise the project, compamny officials complained.
Why shouldn’t they have to get a permit, like the Baltimore RESCO plant, which also burns trash for energy? Energy Answers lawyers’ argue that the project is different because the plant will not get unseparated trash, like RESCO, but will get “processed” material, prepared offsite.