Construction began this week on a trash-burning power plant in South Baltimore, meeting a state-imposed deadline, a company spokeswoman said.
But permits the city issued years ago to build the controversial 160-megawatt facility have expired, raising questions among environmentalists opposed to the project of whether the developer actually met the state's timetable.
Construction began Tuesday, the date by which the Maryland Public Service Commission required work to begin, said Elona Cadman, spokeswoman for Energy Answers in Albany, N.Y.
Had the deadline not been met, state approvals for the project would have expired and the company would have had to apply all over again, a process that could have taken years and provided new opportunities for opponents to object.
Company officials say the Fairfield Renewable Energy Power Plant would create 180 "green" jobs and meet or exceed air-quality requirements while generating power from burning shredded refuse, including trash, wood and tires. Environmental activists contend the plant's emissions would pose a health hazard for neighboring Curtis Bay, which has the highest levels of toxic pollution in the state. State regulators say the plant emissions would comply with limits.
When the plant was approved by the Public Service Commission in 2010, the company was given until February 2012 to begin building. Last year, Energy Answers asked for an extension, saying it needed more time to line up purchasers of power and suppliers of fuel so it could obtain financing for the estimated $1 billion project. The company also said it needed to finish a study showing that the plant would meet air pollution limits.
Over objections from environmentalists, the commission gave the company until this week to start construction or lose its right to proceed.
Cadman said the plant site has been surveyed, an access road built and a crane brought in to begin driving pilings for the plant's smokestack. Construction should take about 36 months, she said.
"We've put a lot of energy into it," Cadman said, "and we still look forward to getting a power plant down there built and be a model for other areas." She said she did not know whether additional power purchasers or fuel suppliers have been signed up, or if all needed financing had been secured.
A crane could be seen parked on the site Friday morning. A couple of men were walking around.
Meanwhile, permits the city issued years ago for work on the site have expired, according to an online database maintained by Baltimore Housing, which issues the permits. Agency spokeswoman Cheron Porter said officials have reviewed the company's plans and are prepared to issue a permit for driving the piles once the $100 fee is paid and signed copies of the approved plans are returned to the city. Until permits are issued, she said in an email, no work is supposed to be done on the site.
Cadman did not respond to a phone call and email messages seeking further information.
A spokeswoman for the Public Service Commission, which must approve all power projects, said that to retain the commission's approval the company must at least have signed a contract to build the facility by Tuesday. It also must have obtained building and grading permits from the city before starting construction, she said. But when asked whether the lack of current permits mattered, the spokeswoman said having a contract is the commission's principal requirement.
Leah Kelly, a lawyer with the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington-based group that has challenged the plant, said the question of when a project can be considered to have commenced is a complicated legal issue. But she contended that under federal regulations one condition that must be met is that all needed permits and approvals must be obtained.
"It sounds like what they've done is pretty minimal and there aren't any permanent structures up," she said.