A group of Baltimore students are calling on the school board to pull out of its agreement to purchase energy from a planned plant that would burn waste within a mile of two schools in one of the most polluted neighborhoods of the city.
Students from Benjamin Franklin High School have reignited a debate over the Fairfield Renewable Energy Project — what the students and environmental advocates consider an incinerator — that was approved in 2010 and would be the largest of its kind in the nation.
What started as a service-learning initiative at the high school has spurred a group called "Free Your Voice," which is using poems, songs and compelling testimony to garner the attention of city and state leaders to help stop the industrialization of the Curtis Bay and Brooklyn neighborhoods in South Baltimore. The neighborhoods have been ranked among the most polluted ZIP codes in Maryland and the country.
"We feel like this development just stomps over this whole idea of human rights," said Destiny Watford, who graduated from Benjamin Franklin last year and now attends Towson University. "We live in a community that's very polluted, and no one seems to care. It isn't fair. It isn't equitable. It isn't right."
Patrick Mahoney, president of Energy Answers International, which is building the plant, said the project was approved because it met the strictest of standards set forth by the Department of the Environment and received buy-in from the community.
He said he believes the students are being influenced by environmental groups and wants to invite the group to visit its other site in Massachusetts to get a better view of how the Baltimore plant would operate.
"I respect the students' choice in looking at things like this and taking a position," Mahoney said. "The one issue I have is that they don't have enough nor the right information and are taking a position without the right foundation."
The students recently made an emotional plea to the school district to halt plans to purchase energy from the plant.
The district signed a contract in April 2011 to join 22 other entities slated to buy energy from the plant, which was to be built within 48 months of the signing of the contract. The plant's construction has been delayed, however, and the district can pull out with no penalty if it is not built by April.
The project has run into roadblocks, failing to garner enough energy purchasers to finance the nearly $1 billion plant's construction. Mahoney said that is changing, though.
Shanaysha Sauls, president of the city school board, said staff were reviewing information provided by the group during a presentation — which received a standing ovation from board members — as well as the district's contract with Albany-based Energy Answers.
"The board was extraordinarily impressed … and will definitely take it up for discussion," Sauls said.
The plant has been controversial since it was proposed.
The Free Your Voice group has asked whether the company has missed crucial construction deadlines, which would require it to go through the approval process again.
Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the company has received one extension to its original Feb. 12, 2012, deadline for construction to commence. It has 18 months from August 2013 to begin construction, and some preliminary work has been done on the site.
But Apperson said the department will assess the company's compliance with the Clean Air Act, which requires that construction continue "at a reasonable pace and be completed within a reasonable timeframe," after Energy Answers files its next progress report, which is due by July 30.
Mahoney said the company considers it a "resource recovery facility" — not an incinerator — that would recover more than the average recycling plant. The plant would be the cleanest in the nation and would generate electricity and steam from waste that otherwise would fill up landfills, he said. He said that pre-construction work on the site has included assessing contamination that would remain on the site if the plant weren't being built.
"Our goal is to create a sustainable enterprise that is very much better than landfilling, that will have economic benefits as well as environmental benefits," Mahoney said. "We have gotten permits where nobody else has because this has been an exhaustive process."
Mahoney said odor would not be an issue. He also said that trucks carrying materials would only take routes agreed upon by the community.
He added that residents had been an integral part of the project, pointing out that community associations signed a memorandum of understanding before the project was approved by the state.
But Free Your Voice contends that the company cannot guarantee that the 240 pounds of mercury and 1,000 pounds of lead the plant is legally allowed to emit per year won't be harmful.
They also point out that a health impact study for the site was not required and therefore never conducted.
Environmental groups also have criticized the project for skirting a law that prohibits building an incinerator within a mile of a school. The Energy Answers project is considered a "power plant" by the state.
It would burn shredded municipal waste, tire chips, auto parts and demolition debris for fuel within a mile of Benjamin Franklin and Curtis Bay Elementary.
"It just seems really selfish that they were able to do that," said Leah Rozier, a senior at Benjamin Franklin who also resides in Curtis Bay. "It makes you wonder, if this was happening in their neighborhoods, near their children, to their families, if the same decision would have been made."
Local political leaders have been supportive of the students' efforts to renew the debate, though they say that not all see the project, which will bring jobs and other benefits to the community, as harmful.
In 2010, the Curtis Bay and Brooklyn community associations signed a memorandum of understanding under which the company would offer the community scholarships and $50,000 to $100,000 a year in donations for community improvements. The company also vowed in the memorandum to spare residents from dust, noise and pollutants.
Sen. Bill Ferguson, who represents the Curtis Bay area, said that while community associations have been generally supportive of the project, he believes the Free Your Voice group has raised awareness of possible environmental justice issues that should be taken into consideration.
"They bring up some very real concerns and have been very successful in presenting a compelling argument that there needs to be a review of this project to make sure there isn't an over-saturation of pollutants in this neighborhood," Ferguson said.
While they wait for the next steps, the students — all of whom live in the affected neighborhoods — plan to continue their awareness campaign, which has included petitions, letters to elected officials, and knocking on hundreds of doors in their neighborhoods.
"We met a lot of people who didn't know what an incinerator was," Rozier said. "It was very overwhelming how many people didn't know what was going on in their own backyard."
Drawing on federal data, the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington-based environmental group, found last year that the Curtis Bay and Brooklyn ZIP codes had the highest toxic air pollution from businesses and factories — the neighborhood is home to more than a dozen plants including fuel depots, coal piers and other industrial facilities — in the state.
The plants account for more than one-third of all such emissions in Maryland, the study found, and nearly 90 percent of Baltimore's total.
"They're just making this a dumping ground, and it's not fair to dump on the little people because of money," said Charles Graham, a senior at Benjamin Franklin. "It's not fair to possibly have your life shortened because of where you grew up."