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Environmentby Fern Shen9:08 pmNov 2, 20200

Infuriating opponents, Young moves forward with BRESCO incinerator contract

Skipping over a promised public hearing and City Council briefing, Young puts the controversial 10-year contract extension on the Board of Estimates agenda for Wednesday

Above: Demonstrators target the BRESCO trash-to-energy plant as Baltimore’s biggest source of industrial pollution. (Louis Krauss)

Amid intense public opposition to extending Baltimore’s contract to burn trash at the BRESCO incinerator for another 10 years, city officials last month assured Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke that before any contract went up for a vote, a public hearing would be held and the City Council would be briefed.

Today Clarke and others reacted angrily to news that a Board of Estimates vote is on the routine agenda for Wednesday – the day after the election – even though no briefing or hearing has been scheduled, as City Solicitor Dana Moore promised at an October 2 City Council hearing.

“I asked her repeatedly, and repeatedly she assured me,” Clarke said. “I expected the city solicitor to keep her word to explain the terms of the contract, explain the negotiations behind this agreement to the full Council.”

“It takes the wind out of you. It’s like somebody punched you in the stomach,” said Councilman Ed Reisinger, whose district has been the epicenter of opposition to the trash-burning facility, Baltimore’s biggest source of industrial pollution.

Reisinger said he was “very, very disappointed” in Moore and mystified as to why Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young – who lost the primary and is leaving office next month – is granting a new contract to BRESCO’s operator, New Hampshire-based Wheelabrator Technologies.

With Young controlling three of the five votes on the spending board, opponents have little power to halt the contract approval.

“I don’t know why he’s so beholden to Wheelabrator,” Reisinger said.

Moore has not yet replied to a request for comment.

Item Slipped In

The contract issue has been the subject of a years-long campaign, focused lately on Young with a series of online “Listen, Jack. . .” ads featuring citizens decrying the health effects of the South Baltimore plant and urging the lame-duck mayor to let the contract die.

The administration, meanwhile, appeared to be attempting to ease a new BRESCO contract towards a quiet passage. It  was not on the spending board’s draft agenda circulated, as is customary, on Friday.

Instead, the set of incinerator-related items turned up as an add-on on page 105, the last item on the official agenda released this afternoon.

At present, the contract remains one of scores of “routine agenda” items, meaning it will be approved with the others en masse and without discussion.

Under the terms laid out in the agenda, Baltimore would award Wheelabrator a $106 million contract through 2031 to burn the city’s solid waste. In return, the company would invest $39.9 million in emission controls at the 35-year-old facility.

Baltimore would also collect more than $38 million in projected revenue from future fees paid by Wheelabrator to dump ash from the incinerator at its Hawkins Point landfill.

No Strict NOx Limit

The new contract was presented by the city’s lawyers as part of its settlement of litigation over Baltimore’s 2019 Clean Air Act that tightened emissions standards for city incinerators.

Wheelabrator and other parties successfully challenged the act in federal court, a ruling the city has appealed.

According to the agenda, the promised pollution controls will meet or exceed the standards set by the act – with the exception of (NOx) nitrogen oxides, which will be reduced by nearly 50% of its current permitted levels.

“Great, they get to continue polluting the land [with ash] and they’ve eliminated the NOx standards” in the original Clean Air Act, noted Greg Sawtell, of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust.

Opponents are skeptical of Wheelabrator’s claims now that it can operate under stricter standards.

Nitrogen oxides, a key component of the smog that aggravates asthma and other respiratory conditions, was a major target of the new law.

Incinerator opponents are skeptical of Wheelabrator’s claims now that it can operate under stricter standards, considering a company official’s acknowledgment in 2017 that doing so would be “unfeasible” and the facility would have to shut down.

“There’s no assurance there will be any enforcement,” Sawtell added. “I’ve not seen anything about clawbacks, enforcement, monitoring, compliance.”

Scott’s Stance Unclear

City Council President Brandon Scott tonight did not respond to a request for comment on the contract.

After saying before the Democratic Party primary that the contract should end in 2021, the expected next mayor of Baltimore drew criticism when he told The Brew that he now believes Baltimore should extend the contract in order to have more leverage over operations there.

• Backtracking on a campaign promise, Scott now favors extending BRESCO contract (10/13/20)

With the Young administration moving ahead, it was unclear what response incinerator critics plan next.

Reisinger and others are asking whether the contract violates city requirements for competitive bidding. Clarke said she and others plan to testify at the board meeting on Wednesday, provided Scott moves the item off the routine agenda.

“If they don’t let us speak, that will be shame on top of shame,” she said.

County Approves Contract

Also a shame, she said, is Baltimore County Executive Johnny A. Olszewski Jr.’s decision to award Wheelabrator a new six-year BRESCO contract. (It was approved tonight by the Baltimore County Council by a 6-1 vote.)

“We could have worked with them to move towards Zero Waste together. We have a Zero Waste Plan. We have companies ready to come in and employ people, to get us there,” Clarke said. “Instead, we have many more years of this.”

“I have grandchildren. There’s global warming,” she continued. “When they say someday, ‘What did you do to stop the destruction of Mother Earth?’ I would say ‘Not enough!’ We failed in November 2020.”

• To reach this reporter: fern.shen@gmail.com

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