The great uproar over the poison being spewed into the air in South Baltimore from trash burning at the Wheelabrator plant on Russell street brings to mind the earliest incarnation of that dubious monument to the science of converting trash to a reusable resource.
More than four decades ago, Baltimore partnered with the Monsanto corporation in the development of what would be known as the “pyrolysis plant,” named after the process in which tons and tons of city trash would be burned at an extremely high temperature to produce reusable energy.
It seemed like a great, innovative idea at the time, enthusiastically supported by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who ponied up more than $5 million in city funds that were matched by $7 million from the Environmental Protection Agency and some $4 million in state funds to support Monsanto’s own multi-million-dollar investment.
From the very beginning, in 1972, the pyrolysis plant was plagued with difficulties and millions more were thrown into the experiment — all, as it turned out good money after bad.
In February 1977, Monsanto threw up its hands and informed City Hall and others that the great pyrolysis experiment simply could not work and they were pulling out for good. Another reporter, Tom Horton, was assigned to write the story. I had been covering Mr. Schaefer since 1970, when he was still president of the City Council, and maintained a good working relationship with the mayor, so I was asked to call him for reaction to the Monsanto pull-out.
He answered the phone. I told him why I was calling. There was a silent moment.
Then he muttered: “Ca-ca, pee-pee, doo-doo.”
Clearly, he was unhappy, but I had to tell him we needed something printable.
“Ca-ca, pee-pee, doo-doo,” he repeated, a little louder.
Please, Don, I pleaded.
“They are a common bunch of bastards,” he said. “They sold us a bill of goods and now they want to walk out. They never could meet their commitments.”
And that’s what appeared in the story the next day under the headline:
“Pyrolysis experiment end urged. Monsanto tells city $20 million plant may never work”
An editorial in the paper ran under the headline: “Mayor Burned, if not the Trash,” noting that the mayor’s reaction was “uncouth, but not uncalled for.”
Good thing they didn’t know what he really said!
Say this for William Donald Schaefer, he had an early commitment to environmental programs like recycling long before they became widely practiced. Take a look at Charles Street downtown and note the existence of glittering recycled glass mixed in with the asphalt: Glassphalt, was his baby.
One day in 1971, when he was president of the City Council, running for his first term as mayor, he invited City Hall reporters to join him at the corner of Charles and Madison streets to inaugurate the program.
Then-mayor Thomas J. D’Alesandro III, who loved to tease Schaefer, encountered the reporters as they headed to Schaefer’s glassphalt event. “You guys going to see Don spreading broken glass on Charles street. Ha Ha Ha!”
The angry disappointment that Mr. Schaefer experienced with the Monsanto pull-out might have been good practice for another pull-out that infuriated Hizonner.
In 1984, in the middle of the night, Robert Irsay snuck out of town the Colts football team that he owned after months of attempts by Mayor Schaefer and others to make it attractive for Irsay to keep the team in Baltimore.
It was one of the bitterest moments in Mayor Schaefer’s experience.
He said the way the Colts had left town in the middle of the night, was “sleazy.” Speaking to reporters at his home in West Baltimore the next morning, he told them, “I’m trying to retain what little dignity I have left in this matter… I hate to see a man cry.”
In a story reporting on events leading to the departure, reporter Sandy Banisky quoted the mayor as saying “I’m neither bitter nor despondent. The word would be ‘hurt,’ somewhat angry.”
Somehow, I suspect, he probably expressed his somewhat anger a little more unprintably.
G. Jefferson Price III (firstname.lastname@example.org)retired from The Sun in 2004 after a 35 year career at the paper in which his assignments included Baltimore City Hall and state government and politics.