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Environmentby Fern Shen1:27 pmMar 29, 20240

Advocates call on Moore, Ferguson and Jones to support an end to incineration subsidy

There’s broad support for ditching Maryland’s “renewable energy” subsidy for trash-burning incinerators like Baltimore’s Wheelabrator, but legislative leaders aren’t bringing the bill to a vote

Above: Known as Wheelabrator, the former BRESCO trash incinerator in south Baltimore is state-subsidized as a “renewable” energy source. (Mark Reutter)

To community groups and climate-focused organizations, Maryland’s policy on trash incineration is a glaring environmental injustice.

To the companies that own and operate incinerators, it’s a windfall.

The state classes trash-to-energy plants, like Wheelabrator’s BRESCO incinerator in South Baltimore, as a form of renewable energy – making them eligible for millions of dollars in subsidies despite the carbon emissions and air pollution they release.

Asking why the latest bill to end this practice has not received a vote in either house of the Maryland General Assembly, advocates this week pressed legislative leaders, including Governor Wes Moore who has taken no position on the bill.

“Communities near the BRESCO trash incinerator in Baltimore know all too well that incineration is not renewable energy,” said Carlos Sanchez, youth leader with the South Baltimore Community Land Trust.

Sanchez’ group was one of 60 organizations that sent a letter to Moore, Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones asking them to endorse the Reclaim Renewable Energy Act (HB166/SB146). The legislation would eliminate trash incineration from Maryland’s Renewable Portfolio Standard.

They’re also calling on the state to redirect the tens of millions of dollars that have gone toward the incineration subsidy every year to support the use of other renewable energy sources.

“Forcing us to subsidize the trash incinerator that’s polluting the air we breathe, instead of the wind and solar that would help clean our grid, is adding insult to injury,” said Sanchez in a release, before joining others to personally deliver the letter to recipients’ offices in Annapolis.

His group, and partner organizations, point to a recent study showing that Maryland utilities, required by the state to help fund renewable energy, spent approximately $100 million subsidizing trash incinerators between 2012 and 2022.

These costs are basically passed along to residents through their utility bills.

New Hampshire-based WIN Waste Innovations, which operates the South Baltimore incinerator, received $4.2 million through the program in 2022, according to a report by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

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

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

High Hopes

Moore, Ferguson and Jones have not returned a request for comment from The Brew.

Meanwhile Sanchez and other supporters have been trying to draw attention to the widespread support for the legislation that raised hopes for passage in the 2024 session after previous attempts for the past six years failed.

For the first time this year, state government supported the idea.

The Maryland Department of the Environment’s climate plan, released in December, included removing trash-burning from “Tier 1” of the state’s renewables. The Maryland Climate Commission took a similar position.

The Governor’s own Climate Pollution Reduction Plan supports the change.

Also this year, more than 80 Maryland organizations, along with leaders in local governments that use incinerators – Baltimore, Montgomery County and Frederick County – supported the legislation.

Community associations representing city neighborhoods near the BRESCO incinerator  – including Westport, Locust Point and Lakeland –  specifically targeted Ferguson (D-46th) and the Baltimore City Delegation.

“No source of energy that pollutes the air we breathe should be considered renewable,” a letter they sent said.

“Subsidies for trash incinerators give the companies that own them needless extra profits, making them artificially more competitive against the composting, recycling, reuse, and waste reduction initiatives and businesses that we actually need.”

Pollution and Power

Opposing the changes to Maryland’s energy portfolio are WIN Waste and Covanta, which runs the state’s other trash incinerator, owned by Montgomery County.

WIN Waste argued at the hearings this year that its operation, while not as clean as solar or wind, offsets the burning of fossil fuel to create power.

They note that it provides an alternative to trucking waste to landfills. And they point to $45 million in recent plant upgrades, including pollution control improvement.

“Every day our facility generates about 65 megawatts of energy, enough to power 35,000 homes”  – Mike Dougherty, WIN Waste.

Michael Dougherty, Mid Atlantic market manager for Win Waste, also known as Wheelabrator, spoke against the bill during a January Senate hearing.

He noted that Maryland generated 14 million tons of waste in 2021, up 20% from the calendar year 2020.

“It’s imperative that we recognize [that] waste-to-energy has a role in reducing the volume of waste and recovering it and generating energy,” he said.

“Every day, our facility generates about 65 megawatts of energy, enough to power 35,000 homes,” Dougherty said. “We convert about 700,000 tons of post recyclable waste into renewable energy offsetting the need for fossil fuel.”

To opponents, the plant’s power production is outweighed by its pollution production, which includes particulate matter, mercury, lead and carbon monoxide.

The WIN Waste incinerator in Baltimore, they note, has been categorized as Baltimore’s biggest single source of industrial air pollution.

Urging legislative leaders to move the bill, they warned that “leaving it behind for another year would be a failure on environmental justice, a failure on climate action, and a failure to represent your constituents who are clamoring for change now.”

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