Activists Push Baltimore County To Stop Sending Its Trash to City Incinerator

By Dharna Noor

Next year, Baltimore County’s solid waste management plan will be up for renewal. The public comment period on the new one ended on May 2.

Activists are praising the county for increasing its recycling goals—and imploring them to go further by ending their contract with the Wheelabrator (formerly BRESCO) incinerator.

At a March public hearing on the draft plan for 2019-2028, officials stated that each year, the county transports 215 tons of solid waste to be burned in the city.

“This is a huge equity issue when Baltimore County, which is a primarily white, primarily wealthy county is sending its trash to a majority black, poor city,” said Crystal Hall, Sierra Club Baltimore Beyond Coal Organizer, in her testimony at the hearing “Why is trash that could be dealt with within the county itself being sent out?”

She said it is also a public health issue. “Incineration is, as I mentioned, a dirty form of creating energy,” she said. “It pollutes things like mercury and lead which are harmful especially to children. Baltimore City has one of the highest asthma rates in the country due in part to the pollution from the BRESCO incinerator.”

Others who testified agreed.

“Trash incineration actually is far worse than coal burning per unit of energy,” said Mike Ewall , the founder of Energy Justice Network in his testimony at a March public hearing on the county’s Solid Waste Management Plan. “It’s two and a half times as bad for CO2 emissions than coal. It’s 6 to 14 times as bad for mercury emissions.”

Destiny Watford, who led a campaign to fight the construction of an incinerator in Curtis Bay, sees the effects of these emissions.

“In my neighborhood, the deaths related to lung cancer and respiratory disease are high, and they’re even higher in others,” she told the Real News.

These emissions not only create health issues, but also further climate change.

“The CO2 emissions are a global warming problem,” said Ewall on the phone. “So that’s part of a bigger pictures that affects people everywhere. There’s the problem of heat stroke, especially, increasingly, in urban areas, and there’s the threat this poses to global food production.”

At the hearing, after pulling out his phone and crunching the numbers, Solid Waste Management Bureau Chief Michael Beichler revealed that 61% of the county’s solid waste goes to the incinerator. Ewall says this number disagrees with the state’s, but that that could be due to Beichler’s inclusion of waste that goes to two transfer stations.

“A lot of the trash that goes to those transfer stations end up in the incinerator,” he said on the phone.

Under its current put-or-pay contract, Baltimore County must send 215,000 tons of solid waste to the Wheelabrator incinerator.

“The put-or-pay contract means they’re on the hook for that much waste because say for an example, they were required to send 100,000 tons of solid waste a year to the incinerator but they only sent 75,000, they’d still be on the hook for the cost of that 25,000 tons,” said Dante Swinton, the Energy Justice and Zero Waste Organizer for Energy Justice Network. He said that this kind of contract sent Clairemont, New Hampshire into bankruptcy.

Though they are an imperfect solution, advocates would prefer the county send its trash to landfills. A study from Energy Justice Network found that incinerators emit more nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, toxic chemical releases, acid gases, and smog than landfills.

“But there’s a double NIMBY…they have a two point plan for trash.” said Ewall. “Step one is, burn as much of it as they can in Baltimore, in the incinerator. And their backup is to ship it out of the county, which usually means out of state landfills. Even though they have their own landfill, they’re trying to make it last as long as they can.”

Many are pushing for a complete phase out of the use of the incinerator, and say that the county stopping its contract would be a step toward this goal.

“In Baltimore and Maryland, we need to do better,” said Watford. “The BRESCO incinerator creates one third of the air pollution in the city. The number of people die because of air pollution in Baltimore…is higher than the homicide rate.”

“The more that we buy into dirty air and dirty developments like the BRESCO incinerator,” she continued, “the more our lives are at risk.”

*An earlier version of this article said that said that a put-or-pay contract contributed to bankrupcy in Detroit, Michigan and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.