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Maryland Considers Air Pollution Restrictions for Trash Incinerators

Tom Pelton


With the smokestack of Maryland’s largest trash-burning incinerator in the background, dozens of protesters held a rally on Friday in south Baltimore’s Carroll Park to demand either a shutdown or stronger pollution controls on the BRESCO waste-to-energy plant.

The activists gave speeches and waved signs beneath a banner that read, “Burning Trash is Not Clean Energy.” That’s a reference to a 2011 state law that gives the 33-year-old incinerator, operated by the New Hampshire-based Wheelabrator company on contract for the city, millions of dollars in tax breaks as a source of allegedly “green” energy, like solar or wind.

Seven years ago, the city approved a 10-year contract with Wheelabrator to burn 200,000 tons of municipal garbage per year, with the ash dumped in the city’s Quarantine Road landfill.  

That contract runs out in three years. And City Councilman Ed Reisinger, who represents south Baltimore, was among those who spoke out Friday against continuing that contract because of all the air pollution released by the incinerator.

“We don’t want any more incinerators in the city of Baltimore,” Reisinger said. “If I had a magic wand, I’d close BRESCO down tomorrow.”


Leah Kelly, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, pointed out that the incinerator releases more than 1,000 tons per year of nitrogen oxide – or NOx – air pollution. It contributes to smog and fine particulate pollution in a city with high rates of asthma.

“The BRESCO incinerator emits more NOx pollution, for the amount of energy and steam that it generates, than any of Maryland’s coal plants or Maryland’s other trash incinerator,” Kelly said. “In addition, between 2006 and 2016, all but one of these other energy sources dramatically reduced their NOx emissions rates. But BRESCO’s stayed the same.”

To bring down those pollution levels, the Maryland Department of the Environment is proposing regulations that would reduce the permitted nitrogen oxide pollution from the BRESCO incinerator by 20 percent, or 200 tons per year.

The state agency held a public hearing on the proposal after the rally.  Officials from Wheelabrator were present at the hearing, but did not speak or answer questions.  Speaking out in favor of the Baltimore incinerator -- and a newer trash-burning facility in Montgomery County -- was a trade group that represents the industry, the Energy Recovery Council

Ted Michaels, president of the Energy Recovery Council, said: “Both of these facilities are clean, renewable, efficient and economical forms of energy production, which has long proven to be an effective means of managing post-recycled waste in the state.”

But several local residents disputed this, arguing that any plant – like BRESCO -- that releases higher rates of brain-damaging mercury and lead air pollution than coal-fired power plants should not be called "clean."

A better solution, many argue, would be for Baltimore to render its contract with the incinerator unnecessary by reducing the city's waste stream, through more aggressive recycling and composting.

This is the case made by Marvin Hayes, who runs the Baltimore Compost Collective. For the last two years, he’s employed young people to collect food waste and transform it into fertilizer used in urban farming at the Filbert Street Garden in south Baltimore.

“I’m telling people, learn so we don’t have to burn,” Hayes said. “Not only can we create a better environment, but we can create jobs -- for youths, for ex-offenders, and for anyone who wants to learn composting.”

Composting: because a rind is a terrible thing to waste.