Last week, the Baltimore City Council passed a bill that would significantly reduce air pollution from the city’s single largest source of emissions: the BRESCO trash burning incinerator beside Interstate 95.
The company that owns the 34-year-old incinerator, Wheelabrator, has warned that the pollution limits could force the shutdown of a facility that burns 700,000 tons of trash a year for Baltimore and surrounding counties and provides steam heat for downtown buildings.
This, in turn, could force Baltimore residents to pay millions of dollars more to truck the garbage to landfills. The move may require the expansion of the city’s landfill on Quarantine Road in far south Baltimore, which is nearing capacity.
Wheelabrator has called the city’s bill “unlawful” – and is threatening a lawsuit against Baltimore to keep operating.
But beyond this city action, state lawmakers are also teaming up on a separate state legislation that would undermine the incinerator’s financial viability by stripping away millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for trash burning.
An unusually bipartisan coalition of 28 Republican and Democratic Senators is co-sponsoring a bill that would eliminate trash incineration from the list of so-called “renewable” energy sources that receive government subsidies, such as wind and solar power.
One of the sponsors is Democratic Senator Clarence Lam, a physician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Dr. Lam said he’s concerned about the public health impact of the Wheelabrator incinerator in a city with high rates of childhood asthma.
“When you look at the over 700 tons of trash that are burned every year at the Wheelabrator incinerator, it releases over 120 pounds of lead into the atmosphere, 60 pounds of mercury, 99 pounds of hydrochloric acid, two tons of formaldehyde,” Dr. Lam said. “There has got to be a better way. And I think this is a step forward toward encouraging the industry to look at some of the better alternatives.”
At a time when Republicans and Democrats in Washington are at each other’s throats, in Annapolis, many liberals and conservatives in the state Senate seem to have found a common cause on this issue of trash incineration.
Here’s the lead sponsor of the bill, Senator Mike Hough, who represents Frederick and Carroll counties.
“I am actually a Republican – one of the most conservative members of the General Assembly,” said Hough. “I very much support the free market. I don’t like government subsidizing private industry. For me, this is a prime example of taxpayers being ripped off, and the money is going to these large corporations. I think that’s bipartisan.”
Now, you might be curious: Why is it that trash burning was ever included as a subsidized form of energy production like wind and solar?
Well, in 2004, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill called the Renewable Portfolio Standards Law, which requires power companies to buy a percentage of their electricity from renewable sources, as a method of fighting climate change.
Seven years later, lobbyists for the waste-to-energy industry convinced influential Democratic Senator Thomas Mac Middleton of Southern Maryland – and Governor Martin O’Malley, among other Democrats – to add incineration to the list of subsidized “green” sources of electricity, although its not particularly clean.
An incineration company called Energy Answers wrote a $100,000 check to the Democratic Governors’ Association, which O’Malley led, on the same day in 2011 that O’Malley indicated he would sign the bill designating trash burning as a “Tier 1” renewable, like solar and wind. The decision means millions of dollars flowing to Wheelabrator incinerator every year.
Senator Paul Pinsky, a Democrat from Prince George’s County, said the decision never made sense.
“I think it’s a little strange that we’re giving a subsidy to something that is not clean energy,” said Pinsky.
The bill removing subsidies for trash incineration has a majority of state Senators supporting it. But its fate is less clear in the House, with some Democrats and labor unions opposing it because 69 jobs at the Wheelabrator incinerator could be lost if it closes.