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Environmentby Fern Shen and Mark Reutter2:58 pmMay 29, 20240

South Baltimore residents file complaint against city, saying BRESCO pollution threatens their civil rights

The Scott administration is accused of doing little to end the city’s dependence on the health-harming trash incinerator

Above: Drone footage shows Baltimore’s BRESCO incinerator towering over the Middle Branch waterfront near Westport. (YouTube)

In the fall of 2020, incoming mayor Brandon Scott surprised environmental groups and disappointed community leaders by reneging on a campaign promise to support ending the city’s practice of sending trash to a highly polluting incinerator in South Baltimore.

He said opposing the renewal of the city’s 10-year contract with the owners of the incinerator (commonly known as BRESCO) was impractical.

But Scott promised to “aggressively” pursue Zero Waste goals as Baltimore’s next mayor, telling The Brew that “I will work my butt off to make sure this is the last time we give them a new contract.”

Four years later and with Scott headed toward a second term, those same community and environmental leaders have filed a federal civil rights complaint against the city, saying essentially that Scott has again broken a promise by failing to take actions to reduce the city’s dependence on the incinerator and prevent the need to renew the contract in 2031.

“We must close BRESCO. We must break with the contract in 2021. That goes without saying”  – Brandon Scott at a May 2020 candidates forum.

“Residents’ tireless organizing over the past decade has led to our officials promising they’ll do everything they can to end trash incineration and build new Zero Waste infrastructure. But we still aren’t seeing it where it counts in policy and budgets,” said Shashawnda Campbell, environmental justice director for the South Baltimore Community Land Trust (SBCLT).

Filed by the land trust with assistance from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Environmental Integrity Project, the Title VI complaint to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that the Ten Year Solid Waste Plan by the Baltimore Department of Public Works fails to adequately prepare the city for a transition away from reliance on the BRESCO incinerator, formerly known as Wheelabrator.

Operated by Wheelabrator Technologies, which was rebranded in 2022 as WIN Waste Innovations, the facility won its current contract despite intense opposition from advocates for the environment and the community.

Unequal Health Risks

The absence of action by the Scott administration directly contributes to the unequal health risks faced by low-income residents living in Westport, where the towering plant is located, and in the adjacent neighborhoods of Mt. Winans, Cherry Hill, Lakeland, Brooklyn and Curtis Bay, the complaint says.

These communities are categorized as disadvantaged by the White House Council on Environmental Quality’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, indicating they are above the 90th percentile for environmental burdens.

Shashawnda Campbell, of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, leads protest against CSX coal operations in Curtis Bay. She is flanked by Meg Chow and youth leader Carlos Sanchez. (Fern Shen)

Shashawnda Campbell, of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, leads protest in 2022 against CSX coal operations in Curtis Bay. She is flanked by Meg Chow and Carlos Sanchez. (Fern Shen)

Pollution from the incinerator extends across the Middle Branch to more affluent South Baltimore, Riverside and Locust Point, and northward into Pigtown, Morrell Park and the central business district, depending on the wind direction.

A 2017 study commissioned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation found that living near the BRESCO incinerator was equivalent to living with a smoker. As the biggest industrial polluter in the Baltimore area, the facility costs Maryland and neighboring states $55 million in annual human health problems.

Local residents also point to the impact of heavy truck traffic, which carries garbage from the city and surrounding counties to the incinerator and carts waste ash to the city-owned Quarantine Road Landfill, which is a major emitter of methane, a pollutant that drives climate change.

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

After a century of industrial accidents and explosions, Curtis Bay residents say they’ve had enough (12/5/22)

Pollution from the BRESCO incinerator “likely to continue” through mid-2030s, planning report says (4/27/23)

The complaint notes that DPW’s Ten Year Plan, which went into effect in 2024, fails to chart a clear path away from the incinerator, despite public comments from SBCLT and others on the need for specific, measurable strategies that could move Baltimore away from incineration.

Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act forbids recipients of federal funds to engage in discriminatory practices on the basis of race, color or national origin.

The 39-page complaint by SBCLT could threaten federal funds to Baltimore DPW, a large portion of which comes from EPA for drinking water improvements and sewage plant upgrades.

A DPW spokesperson and Mayor Scott’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

10 p.m. UPDATE: DPW issued the following statement regarding the complaint:

Public input was crucial in developing the city’s 10-Year Solid Waste Management Plan (2024-2033), a regulatory document which sets goals for managing the city’s waste stream and assesses current and future disposal needs. The plan includes expanded waste diversion initiatives aimed at reducing reliance on incineration and landfilling, thereby lowering emissions related to waste management.

“The city and DPW stand ready to work with the EPA if and when the agency needs the city’s help in assessing these claims”  – DPW.

The Baltimore City Department of Public Works (DPW) is aware of South Baltimore Community Land Trust’s request for the U.S.  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to examine the city’s use of the Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Company (BRESCO) for residential waste disposal. The city and DPW stand ready to work with the EPA if and when the agency needs the city’s help in assessing these claims.

EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office may choose to reject or accept the complaint for further investigation.

Noting that incinerators are traditionally sited in marginalized communities, Leah Kelly, senior attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, points to the high concentration of harmful activities located in far South Baltimore.

They include CSX’s sprawling and dangerous Curtis Bay coal transfer plant, DPW’s Patapsco Waste Water Treatment Plant, a medical waste incinerator that’s been subject to multimillion-dollar state fines and the methane-emitting Quarantine Road Landfill.

An explosion at the CSX coal plant sends clouds of smoke over Curtis Bay. @BCFDL734

An explosion at the CSX coal transfer plant on December 30, 2021 sends plumes of acrid smoke over Curtis Bay. (@BCFDL734)

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