Mayor Catherine Pugh said today that she will sign a measure designed to reduce emissions from two South Baltimore incinerators that together generate about 38% of all industrial air pollution in the city.
Asked at her weekly press conference if she planned on signing the “Baltimore Clean Air Act” – unanimously approved by the City Council on Monday night despite vociferous industry opposition – Pugh said, “Yes, I will.”
Bill 18-0306 would not bar the future operation of the Wheelabrator trash-burning plant near Horseshoe Casino nor Curtis Bay Energy, the largest medical waste incinerator in the U.S.
Rather, it would place the facilities under stringent limits for releasing such pollutants as nitrogen oxide (NOx), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxides, hydrocarbons, lead, mercury and chromium.
Dangerous Air Pollution
Such standards are “quickly becoming an imperative,” says Mary Beth Haller, interim health commissioner, because “Baltimore has become one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. with respect to air quality.”
The city is now in the bottom 1% of cities with the worst air pollution, Haller said in written testimony supporting the incinerator bill.
The Wheelabrator plant discharges three times the amount of the city’s next largest polluter and is the leading airborne source of mercury and lead, “toxins that have a history of harming Baltimore citizens,” she said.
Curtis Bay Energy burns 170 tons of medical waste daily, much of it trucked in from other states and from Canada.
One in five children in Baltimore has asthma, says the health department.
In 2016, the Baltimore Metropolitan Area had more than 100 days of elevated air pollution, including ozone and particulate matter.
“Emissions from solid-waste incinerators have been shown to have a significant negative impact on people with lung diseases such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema,” Haller continued. “These health impacts include increased airway inflammation, decreased lung function, worsening asthma attacks, and increased likelihood of emergency department visits and hospitalizations.”
One upshot from excessive trash burning: 1 in 5 children in Baltimore has asthma, and 1 in 9 adults are also afflicted by the disease, she said.
Reckoning Date: 2022
The two incinerators would not have to reduce their emissions immediately.
They would have until January 1, 2022 to fully comply with the new standards – something Wheelabrator has indicated would be impossible to achieve, leaving open the distinct possibility that the facility would shut down after its contract with the city ends in December 2021.
Today the mayor echoed the sentiments of environmentalists who say that composting, recycling and other strategies aimed at meeting a “zero waste” goal are viable alternatives to waste-burning incinerators.
“What we’ve begun here in Baltimore [is] composting and turning that into an economic generator for the city,” Pugh said. “There are other technologies that are being prepared.”
These observations differed from those on Monday, when Pugh asked the bill’s sponsor, Councilman Edward Reisinger, to delay a final vote on the bill during a private meeting.
“She said she wanted to know is there a plan with what to do with the trash,” Reisinger told The Brew.
These observations differed from the mayor’s concerns on Monday, when she asked the bill’s sponsor to delay the final vote.
Reisinger said he refused to postpone the vote, explaining “the city can’t live this way anymore. It can’t just burn its trash. It’s got to be recycling and composting more.”
Pugh acknowledged today that “there were conversations with the councilman around trying to expand the amount of time in which that facility [Wheelabrator] would close, but at the same time we have to be concerned about the health and well-being of the citizens of Baltimore.”
She noted that other Maryland jurisdictions, notably Baltimore County, send their trash to the plant for incineration.
“When we remove the other counties, which creates a problem for them as well, the cost of Baltimore taking care of Baltimore’s waste will certainly be less,” she said. “But, again, we’re working with those numbers and meeting with the Finance Department currently and working with DPW.”
Through the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, the Department of Public Works has hired Geosyntec Consultants to write a 2040 Solid Waste Management Master Plan for the city.
The plan is scheduled to be completed this December. Its $460,512 budget was arranged through NMWDA, which collects nearly half-a-million dollars in annual fees from Baltimore to handle waste-related issues.
DPW Director Rudy Chow has said the city should wait until the plan is completed before it decides how to handle its solid waste.
Reisinger rejects that idea, saying workable plans about how to achieve zero waste have been put forward by the city’s Commission on Sustainability, the Energy Justice Network and various nonprofits.
Second Thoughts by Costello
One councilman who has expressed second thoughts about the wisdom of passing Bill 18-0306 is Eric Costello, who represents the 11th district within striking distance of the Wheelabrator plant.
Responding to yesterday’s story in The Brew about the incinerator vote, Costello wrote on the Baltimore City Voters Facebook page that he had “serious reservations” about the bill because the Quarantine Road Landfill is projected to reach capacity in 2026 and because a part his district is powered by steam produced by the Wheelabrator plant.
As a result, he said he abstained from voting on the bill on second reader because “the sponsor [was] insisting on moving forward without each member having all the necessary information.”
He then voted for the bill on Monday, explaining on the Voters page, “I ended up voting in support despite the process of rushing a bill that doesn’t go into effect for 18 months being pretty irresponsible.”