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Battle over South Baltimore trash incinerator re-igniting

At hearing tonight, environmentalists will challenge Energy Answers' request for more time to build the plant

energy answers 2

The now shuttered FMC chemical plant in Fairfield, where a New York-based company wants to build an incinerator.

Photo by: Fern Shen

It may seem like a long way from Dan Lemkin’s home in lower Roland Park to the former chemical factory in Curtis Bay where a waste-to-energy incinerator is proposed.

But Lemkin’s pretty sure the toxic pollutants that would be released by the 160-megawatt Energy Answers plant would have no problem traveling that cross-town 11-mile distance.

“It’s mind-boggling that they would put something like this right in a populated area,” said Lemkin, an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “It starts spewing ash, toxics, particulates, heavy metals, then forget it – five or 10 miles is like nothing.”

That’s why Lemkin and several of his Alonsoville neighbors – as well as national environmental groups that have been battling the project for years – plan to show up at the Curtis Bay Recreation Center tonight.

The Maryland Public Service Commission is holding a public hearing there (at 7 p.m. at 1620 Filbert St.) on the so-called Fairfield Renewable Energy Project proposed by New York-based Energy Answers. The company is asking the PSC for more time to build the $1 billion facility.

Company Missed Deadline

Energy Answers’ permit, approved by the PSC in 2010, required them to start work on the project on Feb. 5, but no construction has taken place.

Company officials say they haven’t been able to find enough buyers for the power or sellers of the necessary annual 4,000 tons of waste needed for fuel – and that requests for a waiver in such situations are not unusual. They also say they need more time to finish a study showing the plant would not violate current pollution control laws.

Environmentalists say the request is an attempt to avoid having to reapply for state permits and face stricter emission limits put in place since then. Seeing an opening, the environmental groups have been urging the PSC to deny Energy Answers Baltimore’s request.

“The premise of the hearing is very broad – they’re taking public comment on all statutory issues including air quality,” said Andrew Galli, Maryland program coordinator for Clean Water Action.

“We think [the incinerator's] impact on Baltimore’s air would be terrible,” Galli said. “At 4,000 tons a day this would be the largest incinerator in the U.S. and they’re building it near a community, including two schools.”

Door-to-Door Campaign

Along with Clean Water Action, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and the Environmental Integrity Project have been waging a campaign to oppose the Fairfield incinerator. Along with filings to the PSC and online petitions, they have been mailing postcards and going door-to-door across the city and in northern Anne Arundel County.

The state’s permit allows it to burn organic and inorganic materials, such as urban wood waste, auto shredder residue, and chipped scrap tires along with municipal solid waste.

Under the permit, the incinerator can release hundreds of tons of sulfuric acid, soot, mercury and lead, at levels which environmentalists say would endanger the health of city residents, especially those  living in Curtis Bay.

They described their concerns about pollution from the incinerator in a letter to Baltimore City School CEO Andres Alonso, in the wake of a contract signed last year by several city government agencies and  neighboring county governments to buy power from it. (City Schools is among those entities.)

The opponents note in their letter that the perimeter of the property (1701 East Patapsco Ave.) is within one mile of two public schools, Curtis Bay Elementary School and Benjamin Franklin Middle School.

In an October letter, Alonso replied that state officials assured him the project “has been tested and approved by the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Public Service Commission.”

“The project is one of many throughout the state in pursuit of innovative, efficient, and environmental ways to generate resources to produce electricity,” Alonso wrote.

 

The state’s 2010 approval of the project exempts it from a state law that prohibits the construction of a municipal solid waste incinerator within one mile of any public or private elementary or secondary school.

Lemkin says he believes state officials are ignoring the human and financial impact of the respiratory illness such an incinerator would exacerbate.

“I’m an ER doc. We just worked on a case that walked in the door of respiratory failure as the result of asthma. We see it all the time,” Lemkin said, estimating the billing on the emergency room visit at $1,500. “Do they ever look at the actual cost of these things to society?”

High-Stakes, Big Dollars

Labor groups, a Curtis bay area community group and state, city and federal agencies support the project.

State lawmakers representing the area and the head of the Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Coalition, an area community group, have said the project would bring needed jobs.

Guests at an October 2010 kick-off ceremony included Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, U.S. Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, representatives from the EPA and other groups.

Last year, O’Malley and state legislators handed Energy Answers more support in the form of a bill that classified waste-to-energy incinerators as a “Tier 1” renewable source of energy  - eligible, like wind turbines and solar panels, for lucrative energy credits.

Bill supporters said trash-to-energy power plants can be run clean and would help the environment by diverting and processing material that would otherwise clog landfills. Environmentalists said the process is a net loss for the environment in the form of air and water pollution.

The company, meanwhile, has been generous in its contributions to the campaign funds of Maryland politicians, according to documents on file with the state.

On Oct. 27, 2010, O’Malley, who signed the energy credit bill into law, received $4,000 from Energy Answers Baltimore LLC and $4,000 from the company’s CEO Patrick F. Mahoney. His campaign received another $1,000 from Mahoney on January 10, 2011.

The campaign of Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown received $4,000 from the company on October 27, 2010 and $4,000 on that date from Mahoney.

Mahoney gave Rawling-Blake’s campaign $1,000 on Jan. 11, 2011 and another $500 in April of that year.

Another contribution, first reported, by the Baltimore Sun, was made to the Democratic Governors’ Association. During the first six months after O’Malley took the helm of the DGA in 2010, Energy Answers International gave the Association a total of $100,000.

O’Malley told the Sun the contribution had no effect on his decision regarding the bill.

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  • Sabina Pade

    The article is interesting, but the claims and figures related in it need to be contextualized if readers are to draw any meaningful conclusions.

    Not all environmentalists are of one mind regarding waste-to-energy incineration; many strongly support it.  In Europe and East Asia, for example, environmentalists have embraced waste-to-energy incineration as a net environmental benefit.  The annual hundreds of tons of pollutant emission hypothetically allowed under the permit here in question, while nothing to welcome, may well be comparable to, or less than the pollutant emission that would be generated by a modern coal-fired or oil-fired power plant if the associated environmental costs of resource extraction and delivery are taken into account; incineration also can safely destroy many compounds that, if deposited into landfill, may leach into the groundwater and permanently contaminate it.

  • Llee

    Is there anyway that the public can actually stop this project from going forward? If so, whats the point of this hearing and who do are politicians really serve? The fact that city and state officials would even consider building the largest incinerator in the U.S. next to two primary schools shows their utter disregard for the health of these communities. The Curtis Bay area has been depressed for years and thats why this incinerator is going to be built there – because the communities there are poor, politically disenfranchised, and can not possibly mount any real resistance. If anyone doubts that, let them ask themselves what would happen if this project was planned for federal hill or fells point. The author is also right to highlight the money being spent by Energy Answers to get this project passed. The entire affair can be seen as a case study in how politics works for poor communities.

  • Kim Trueheart

    Dr. Alonso seems to have forgetten his job is to create safe and healthy learning environments for our children.  Cell phone towers, broken fire alarm systems and trash incinerators DO NOT meet my test for safe and healthy learning environments Mr. CEO!!!

  • Roland Park is clueless

    Has Dr. Lemkin heard of RESCO that’s closer to Roland Park than Curtis Bay? They have been turning waste to energy ever since I can remember so why doesn’t he complain about that.

    • guest

       Google SEAMASS EPA fines. EA used to operate that plant when they received fines for emissions.

  • Lemkin

    We did complain about the Wheelabrator (RESCO) incinerator. At capacity it burns 800,000 tons of trash a year. It violates air standards and the only penalty it faced was a tiny $77,400 fine or 0.07% of the value of their upcoming 10 year renewal contract. None of these companies have any  incentive to abide by clean air standards or act as responsible stewards of the environment and community.

    This was raised by all attendees, not as a neighborhood issue, but as a city and state issue that will have far reaching impact, well beyond curtis bay and even Baltimore city.

    We also raised the issues of worsening health. Increases in asthma, lead and mercury poisoning, and the personal and societal costs related to them.

    The event was poorly advertised, poorly attended, and seemed to be intentionally buried by those who scheduled it. There were no representatives for the company, the mayors office, the city counsel, or the MD dept of environment. It was a very discouraging event.

    • Sabina Pade

      Was this before, or after the EPA, in 2010 instructed the Maryland Department of the Environment to tighten the air pollution limits on the RESCO incinerator?

  • rkolberg

    The fine to the Wheelabrator (Resco) was in 2011:  Wheelabrator
    Baltimore L.P. – Baltimore City: On December, 1, 2011, MDE entered into
    a Settlement Agreement to address alleged violations of Maryland’s air pollution
    control laws. The agreement requires the company to pay a $77,500 penalty to the
    Maryland Clean Air Fund. The company corrected system failures and brought the
    facility back into compliance.  

     

    The nation’s largest medical waste incinerator, located in Hawkins Point, also just
    got a slap on the wrist from MDE for pumping brain-damaging mercury into the
    air: Curtis Bay Energy, L.P. – Baltimore City: On March 13,
    2012, MDE entered into a Settlement Agreement with Curtis Bay Energy to address
    violations of air quality requirements.  Curtis Bay Energy allegedly violated
    air quality requirements by exceeding mercury emission standards from its
    exhaust stack as demonstrated by a stack test. A subsequent stack test showed a
    return to compliance.  The Settlement Agreement requires Curtis Bay Energy to
    pay a $40,000 penalty to address the violation. Curtis Bay Energy owns and
    operates a medical waste incinerator.

  • guest

    The community association debated and signed an agreement violating their own charter and had no vote what so ever for its members. It started as a 120 MW power plant in 2008 and now it is at 160MW, so the fuel (trash) source that will be burned will in fact increase to their disclosure they gave to the public. This company has a poor track record, ex. SEAMASS plant that has violated numerous EPA emission standards and all politicians and supporters ignore everything and anything that gives information and/or facts that disagree with their views. 200 plus trucks a day will take trash stored in Gambrills and dumped off in South Baltimore. EA’s disclosed the projected emissions to the PSC and to the city when a smaller capacity plant was proposed. Now it will be even larger and no study or adjustment has been made. 

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