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Environmentby Fern Shen8:53 amSep 19, 20200

Wheelabrator’s donation to Filbert Street Garden sparks conflict in South Baltimore

The company-sponsored Fox45 segment, which featured the garden’s longtime steward, comes as the future of Wheelabrator’s BRESCO incinerator hangs in the balance

Above: Food boxes donated to neighborhoods near Baltimore’s trash incinerator raise questions about company attempts to buy support. Above: Rodette Jones and Edith Gerald at the Filbert Street Garden for a Fox45 segment sponsored by Wheelabrator. Behind them, holding box lunches, is plant manager Austin Pritchard. (YouTube)

Along with the zucchinis, tomatoes and other bounty at Curtis Bay’s Filbert Street Garden, outspoken, community-based activism has flourished there, too.

The urban farm in far South Baltimore has been a gathering place for clean air advocates who have successfully shot down plans for one trash incinerator and are part of an on-going fight against another – the nearby trash-burning BRESCO facility.

That’s why Marvin Hayes and other incinerator opponents were shocked when longtime garden steward Rodette Jones allowed herself to be filmed – in the garden itself – for a Fox45 feature sponsored by the incinerator’s operator, Wheelabrator Technologies.

Wheelabrator confirmed that, as part of her appearance on the July television segment, the company gave Jones $2,500 for the garden and more than 100 box lunches to distribute to the needy.

“You can’t accept all this from a place that’s killing the community,’” said Hayes, manager of the Baltimore Compost Collective, which is located on the far side of the garden.

“You can’t sell out your community for a couple of dollars!’” – Marvin Hayes.

When he heard, the night before, about the filming, Hayes told her the show was sponsored by BRESCO’s operators and warned her he would have to show up with his protest sign.

Speaking with The Brew, Hayes noted, among other ironies, that Jones herself has joined and sometimes led protests outside the facility, whose towering smokestack next to I-95 is a Baltimore landmark.

Reached by phone, Jones declined to be interviewed, saying, “I’m too busy now to talk.” She failed to return subsequent phone calls and emails seeking comment.

filbert marvin hayes 1

Compost Collective manager Marvin Hayes, with youth composter Kenneth Moss, at the Filbert Street Garden. (J.M. Giordano)

Assailed as Polluter

Conflict over the contribution comes as the Portsmouth, N.H.-based company’s contract to operate 34-year-old BRESCO – the city’s biggest source of industrial pollution – is set to expire in late 2021.

Opponents, armed with a new City Council emissions law designed to shutter the facility, say Baltimore must stop burning its garbage and switch to a strategy that involves landfill disposal and, increasingly, “zero waste” approaches like recycling, reuse and composting.

They point to the incinerator’s release of lead, mercury and nitrogen oxides (NOx) that create the ground-level smog that, in turn, contributes to asthma and other respiratory problems like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer.

Drone footage from 2015 shows Baltimore's Wheelabrator incinerator smokestack towering over the waterfront. (YouTube, Exploring with Purkz)

Wheelabrator’s smokestack towers over the South Baltimore waterfront and adjacent I-95. (YouTube, Exploring with Purkz)

The disclosure that the city’s lame-duck mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, may settle litigation over the Baltimore Clean Air Act by extending Wheelabrator’s contract has triggered alarm among environmental and community activists.

The City Council last month passed a unanimous resolution calling on Young to stop negotiations and defend the act in court.

The idea that Jones would participate in what appeared to be a Wheelabrator public relations stunt left Hayes – a BRESCO foe who promotes composting by saying, “Starve the incinerator, feed the soil!” – aghast.

“You can’t sell out your community for a couple of dollars!” Hayes said.

He and others praise Jones for her years of activism.

“Ms. Rodette is a fearless champion. We have marched together and put ourselves on the line to help see Baltimore become a healthier place for all residents,” said Curtis Bay-born activist Destiny Watford, winner of the 2016 Goldman Prize for her work leading the fight against the Energy Answers incinerator.

Watford points the finger at Wheelabrator for what she says are efforts to undermine the opposition.

“It sickens me that BRESCO would stoop so low as to try to divide the community,” she said. “I’m shocked and enraged that United Workers leadership would in any way accept money or support from an incinerator that violates our fundamental human rights.”

A Critic, Previously

But there was Jones in the garden that day in early July, accompanied by Wheelabrator Baltimore plant manager Austin Pritchard and Fox45’s “Traffic Jam Jimmy” Uhrin.

Hayes, who heard about the filming plans the day before, showed up and started helping out, but stopped cold when he saw people wearing Wheelabrator polo shirts.

Greg Sawtell, then a United Workers organizer who showed up with other community members after Hayes alerted them, said he was disturbed by Jones participating in publicity for – and accepting donations from – Wheelabrator, noting that she chairs the Community of Curtis Bay Association.

Efforts to close the incinerator are regularly discussed at meetings of the association, which has provided input for the Zero Waste Plan that calls for ending the Wheelabrator contract next year.

Jones also sits on the Leadership Council for United Workers, one of the primary organizations that teamed up with residents to try to shutter the plant.

“It’s clearly a conflict,” Sawtell said.

“We’re here to help”

During the FOX45 segment, Jones outlines her efforts to help residents during the pandemic, such as assisting with food distribution at a local church and delivering meals to the sick and shut-ins.

“Good morning. Wheelabrator Baltimore’s here,” declares plant manager Pritchard when his turn comes. “We’re here to get the word out and help feed people people during this tough coronavirus times.”

He and another man wearing a polo shirt with the Wheelabrator logo hold stacks of box lunches as the filming continues.

Behind them, a furious Hayes can be seen walking back and forth, holding up a sign that says that emissions from the incinerator “cause $55 million in health damages.

(He stores the sign in a shed at the garden and notes  that Jones herself has carried it at protests.)

According to Hayes, she hasn’t spoken to him since.

Conditional Charity?

Sawtell, who co-chairs the Community of Curtis Bay Association (CCBA) with Jones, said he hopes a mediator can heal the rift the incident has created.

He also noted that the Wheelabrator donation is not the first time the company has sought to get close to Curtis Bay leaders.

Sawtell said Wheelabrator’s representative, Mary Urban, told CCBA leaders in 2018 that they could participate in the incinerator’s We Can Bmore programming and receive donations to hire people in the community or for community events.

But Urban also made it clear they had to stop their anti-incinerator advocacy.

“The Wheelabrator representative stated the company didn’t believe Zero Waste was possible in Baltimore in the short, medium or even long term, and that if residents and youth calling for Zero Waste can’t get past that, then she doesn’t know what to say or do,” Sawtell recalled.

The company’s offer was declined, Sawtell said.

“The company’s support is not conditioned upon anything”  – Mary Urban, Wheelabrator Technologies

Urban, a communications strategist who recently became Wheelabrator’s communications and outreach manager, said the statement Sawtell attributed to her is “not accurate” without elaborating further.

“The company’s support is not conditioned upon anything,” she said, noting the company’s distribution of 1,400 free recycling bins to local residents in recent years and other programs.

“During the current public health crisis, we are partnering with neighborhood associations to host weekly recycling collection sites as the city’s Department of Public Works faces unprecedented challenges to keep recycling out of the waste stream and out of our facility,” she said.

Urban called her employer “an essential bridge to achieving zero waste and a proponent for Zero Waste.”

Publicity Campaign

Plant manager Pritchard, reached by phone, was asked if the donation to Filbert Street Garden was intended to erode opposition to the incinerator. He said the gesture was purely a goodwill effort to help the community where its plant is located.

“We didn’t want to stir anything up with this. It wasn’t political at all,” Pritchard told The Brew.

Wheelabrator has been engaging in charitable community programs for years through its We Can Bmore campaign. But its efforts appear to have ramped up this summer as controversy over the facility has heightened.

In the adjacent Brooklyn neighborhood, for instance, Pastor Billy Humphrey of the City of Refuge church has accepted donations, food assistance and other help from the company.

Last June, Pritchard came to the church’s weekly food giveaway, again accompanied by Fox45’s Traffic Jam Jimmy, providing box lunches and giving the church a $2,500 donation.

Humphrey said he didn’t realize that “Wheelabrator” operated the trash-burning plant because residents often refer to the plant as “BRESCO,” standing for Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Company.

“I just didn’t connect the dots,” he explained to The Brew, adding that he was not sure if the church will accept any future donations from the company.

Asked if he favors ending or prolonging Baltimore’s trash-burning contract with Wheelabrator, he answered this way:

“I believe in zero waste. I’m just not sure how we get there soon enough to close the incinerator.”

“Tell us what Wheelabrator is”

Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway, senior pastor of Union Baptist Church, says he supports the company’s efforts to keep the plant open.

“We can’t put it all in landfills. What other alternative is there? I’m not on the side of zero waste, quite frankly.”

Hathaway has long enjoyed a relationship with the company. “They came to us and have been very supportive.”

Wheelabrator funds the Green Ambassador program that pays four different crews to clean the areas around Hathaway’s West Baltimore church as well as three other churches. The 18 workers are paid $15 an hour or more, Hathaway said.

“I’m a faith person, but I’m also a practical theologan,” he quipped.

“They have come to us and have been very supportive”  – Rev. Al Hathaway.

In July, Traffic Jam Jimmy came to the church’s Headstart program with cameras and the box lunches and Wheelabrator’s Pritchard.

“Jimmy, tell us about this week’s recipient!” the anchor gushes in the three-minute segment.

After Hathaway describes the 175 children served, Uhrin then prompts Pritchard to “tell us what Wheelabrator is, and how you’re involved with this program.”

And as he did with City of Refuge, Wheelabrator’s manager answers this way:

“We’re a waste-to-energy plant. We take everyday waste and turn it into clean energy!”

Activist Destiny Watford in the Filbert Street Garden in 2016 after the Maryland Department of the Environment declared Energy Answers' incinerator permit expired. At left, Rodette Jones. (Fern Shen)

Activist Destiny Watford (right) in the Filbert Street Garden in 2016 after the Maryland Department of the Environment declared Energy Answers’ incinerator permit expired. Standing behind her and to her right is Rodette Jones. (Fern Shen)

To reach this reporter: fern.shen@baltimorebrew.com

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