Baltimore’s Clean Air Act May Shut Down Massive Incinerator

The bill, which would force Baltimore’s Wheelabrator trash incinerator and medical incinerator to clean up or close down, passed through a preliminary council vote and is due for a final vote in the coming weeks.

Bill That Could Shut Down Wheelabrator Incinerator Advances in Full Council

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Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: I’m Dharna Noor in Baltimore, where this week, City Council advanced a bill that could force the Wheelabrator trash incinerator, which burns most of the city’s trash and also trash from surrounding localities, to shut down. It’s called the Clean Air Act, and it would also apply to Curtis Bay Energy, which is the nation’s largest medical incinerator. It’s also located in Baltimore City.

Councilman Ed Reisinger sponsored the bill.

ED REISINGER: This bill is really simple. It’s to the point. What we want is clear, clean air for the citizens of Baltimore.

DHARNA NOOR: The bill passed with 13 yes votes, 2 abstains, and just one no vote from Councilman Schleifer. More from him later.

Under the bill, Baltimore’s trash and medical incinerators would both have to follow much stricter pollution standards; the standards that newly constructed incinerators currently have to follow. For instance, emissions of nitrogen oxide, which has been linked to things like asthma and other cardiac and respiratory issues and cancer, would be limited to 45 parts per million. Here’s Dante Swinton, an organizer with Energy Justice Network.

DANTE SWINTON: This is very exciting. I mean, this bill basically says, you know, if you’re going to be around our city and you’re going to operate as you have for the last 30-something years, you’ve got to be held a little more accountable for the pollution that you’re providing.

DHARNA NOOR: The bill would also require incinerators to continuously monitor emissions of 20 major pollutants, and make the results public in real time. Councilman Schleifer, the only opposing vote, says he supports Baltimore moving toward sustainability. But he said he couldn’t vote yes because there hasn’t been a full fiscal analysis of what phasing out of trash incineration could mean for Baltimore.

ISAAC SCHLEIFER: As much as I want to be in favor of this bill, until we have a plan and know what the financial impact would be, it’s irresponsible to rush and vote for this bill. So I vote no.

DHARNA NOOR: At a hearing on the bill last week, Wheelabrator said that they wouldn’t be able to comply with the bill if it passes unless they built a whole new facility. State analysts have said the bill could cost the city something like $150 million in additional waste management costs. But advocates say the city could actually generate some revenue by employing some zero waste tactics, like composting, and unit pricing, which is also called pay-as-you-throw. Neil Seldman, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, says that this method could actually drastically reduce the amount of solid waste that the city would have to process.

NEIL SELDMAN: Which is you charge people for the amount of garbage they put out on the street, but not recyclables. And that sounds like it’s an increase, but actually it lowers the overall cost of household solid waste management. Within one year you can get 40 percent reduction in overall solid waste, and you could double and triple your recycling rate, all by putting a unit price on garbage, much like you charge people for the electricity they use in their house with natural gas, or the gas they put in their car.

DHARNA NOOR: Wheelabrator Baltimore has been sending out mailers asking residents to demand city council reject this ordinance. The mailers say that the U.S. EPA actually prefers trash incineration to landfilling, because it reduces greenhouse gas emissions by approximately one ton for every ton of waste processed. But proponents of the bill have another stance.

Their approach is to assume that the moment that they close, every single thing will be going into landfill, which would include food waste food waste. But food waste can be composted. 75 percent of what we throw out is recyclable or compostable. What they’re doing is a doom and gloom scenario, and assuming that Baltimore isn’t smart enough, and quite honestly isn’t white enough or rich enough to pay attention to recycling and composting.

46 percent of what comes to Wheelabrator right now is from out of the city. So you’ve got eight different counties that send material there. You’ve got eight different states that send stuff there. So we’re essentially a dumping ground for multiple municipalities that have nothing to do with Baltimore City. So the moment that you close Wheelabrator down you shut off the 46 percent of trash that’s being trucked into our city, because we get to decide what comes to our landfill. So now we’re only handling the material that the city handles and that private haulers handle in the city, and then from there we still have enough space in the landfill, in the existing portion, to last into the mid-2020s. And then even with a small one-cell expansion we still would have enough space, especially if were more aggressive with our zero waste policy.

DHARNA NOOR: The mailers also say Wheelabrator already monitors its emissions closely, with more than 800 compliance checks each and every day.

NEIL SELDMAN: Those checks aren’t for their major pollutants. If anything they’re for the continuous monitored pollutants, the carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides. But they also produce lead, and mercury, hydrochloric acid, formaldehyde. All of these things are not monitored beyond the one test that they have in April every year.

DHARNA NOOR: Last week, the Clean Air Act passed through the Land Use and Transportation Committee of the council, but not before a tense debate. Dozens of Wheelabrator employees testified at the hearing about the hardship they’d face if the incinerator were to shut down and leave them without a job. But the bill’s proponents say that moving away from incineration could actually create more jobs.

NEIL SELDMAN: I did a report in 2017, and I estimated immediately about 500 new jobs will be created in the city through composting, reuse, and increased recycling. These are estimates based on what other cities have done. And the longer and more materials that go into the recycling and composting systems, the more jobs you’ll create. It will also be a stimulus for new small businesses, or expanded existing small businesses. And all of that means an expanded tax base for the city, which is good for everybody.

DHARNA NOOR: Seldman also says that if the incinerator does shut down, a just transition for current Wheelabrator employees, one that would ensure they get first dibs at a new job with comparable pay and benefits, would be crucial.

NEIL SELDMAN: These people should not be punished. Whatever new system is developed, they should get first dibs at those jobs. And if the new system cannot handle the skills that they have, it’s up to the city, I believe, the city and the community, to be responsible to make sure that those workers, men and women, are made whole.

We don’t want them not to have a job. We want cleaner air for them and their children, and everyone else that has to do with that facility. So we’re not forgetting about them.

DHARNA NOOR: The bill is set to go to a final council vote as early as next week. For more on this bill and Baltimore’s incinerators, go to TheRealNews.com and head to the Baltimore page or the Environment page. I’m Dharna Noor. Thanks so much for watching.