A long-delayed trash-burning power plant in South Baltimore has hit a new snag, as a regional government group has backed away from its pledge to buy electricity from the controversial project.
The Baltimore Regional Cooperative Purchasing Committee — a coalition of 22 local governments, school systems and nonprofit institutions — recently voted to recommend its members terminate their contracts to buy power from the facility, which is planned at a former chemical factory in Fairfield.
Laura Van Wert, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, said that the purchasing panel, an arm of the regional council, "voted to go in another direction."
She declined to explain the vote, other than to say it stemmed from the panel's "continued effort to provide the most reliable and cost-effective energy to its members." She would not say how many individual contracts are at issue.
Elona Cadman, with Energy Answers International, developer of the 160-megawatt plant, said she had received no word of the vote and declined to comment until she could learn more.
The project, said by the developer to be a $1 billion investment, has been backed by labor unions and many local elected officials, largely because of its promise to support hundreds of construction jobs and up to 180 permanent positions. But it's been dogged by opposition, and has made little apparent progress since Energy Answers declared it was ready to start construction in fall 2010.
The regional group's vote was welcomed by community and environmental groups who've waged a long campaign to thwart the project, arguing it would increase air pollution in communities already dealing with the region's worst air quality.
"This is a great step toward leaving the incinerator behind," said Greg Sawtell, a spokesman for United Workers, a human rights group working with area residents fighting the project.
Other opponents included Clean Water Action, the Environmental Integrity Project and Free Our Voice, a coalition of students from Curtis Bay and Brooklyn.
It's not clear, however, how many of the local governments, school systems and other organizations will follow through and cancel their power contracts. Jeff Raymond, spokesman for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, said the city's support remains unchanged at this time.
With backing from Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and others, the regional government purchasing group announced in 2011 that its members had struck 10-year deals to buy 25 megawatts' worth of power from the plant.
But since then the project has appeared to struggle. Energy Answers needed to get a key permit extended a few years ago after its CEO said the company was having trouble lining up sufficient customers for the power, as well as suppliers of refuse to burn. The developer narrowly met a 2013 deadline to begin construction.
Then last year, the Maryland Department of the Environment cited the company for violating air quality regulations and ordered work halted. State regulators said the developer had failed to obtain required reductions in air pollution from other sources to offset the plant's expected emissions.
MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said this week that "settlement discussions are continuing" to resolve the issue.
Raymond, spokesman for the city public works department, acknowledged that regional officials had come under pressure to drop their support of the project. The company's failure to progress also apparently stirred misgivings, as the power purchase contracts called for Energy Answers to have its plant up and running within 48 months — by next month.
"With the project really not moving forward," Raymond said, "my understanding is they decided to take that action."
Opponents said they hope local officials now would explore alternative energy deals, such as a solar project.
"This decision gives us the opportunity to work with the purchasing committee for a truly healthy and sustainable project in Baltimore that respects our human right to clean air," said Destiny Watford, a leader of Free Your Voice.
The student group has staged repeated protests and even addressed the Baltimore city school board last year, urging it to drop its contract to buy power from the plant. Two schools are within a mile of the facility.
Cheryl Casciani, a member of the Baltimore city school board, credited the students with prompting her and others to reconsider the project.
"They've gotten everybody riled up in a way they weren't before," said Casciani, who's also head of the city's commission on sustainability. With the regional group recommending ending the power deals, she said she now intends to press the school board to take action.
"We agreed to take a look at it," she said, "and that's what we're doing."