A campaign to undermine a controversial Baltimore waste-burning power plant appears to be working
By VAN SMITH
Feb 24, 2015 | 3:29 PM
In 2010, the Albany, New York-based company Energy Answers (EA) got the green light from Maryland authorities to build the nation’s largest waste-to-energy (WTE) power plant on Baltimore’s industrial Fairfield peninsula, near Curtis Bay. Now, more than four years later, after construction delays and spotty permit compliance, EA’s proposed Fairfield Renewable Energy Power Plant is facing a direct threat: Its detractors, who say the trash-burning incinerator would unjustly burden an already-polluted community with more toxic air, have been strategically attacking the plant’s bottom line by lobbying local governments to opt out of their agreements to purchase its power, and on Feb. 10, they met with a surprise success.
That's when the Baltimore Regional Cooperative Purchasing Committee (BRCPC), a collective of local governments and their publicly financed institutions that negotiates contracts with suppliers of goods and services, "voted to go in another direction" over its EA contract, spokeswoman Laura VanWert explained to City Paper on Feb. 19, and "recommended termination" of the contract. Asked whether the vote meant the contract was dead, or whether member jurisdictions now must each take up the question of termination, VanWert said, "I can't answer that question."
Such uncertainty did not yet exist on Feb. 16, when anti-incinerator groups jointly issued a press release saying BRCPC “voted to terminate its energy-purchasing contract” with EA, and that the decision “removes an important source of revenue for the project.” The groups—Baltimore City public-school student protesters organized as Free Your Voice, the local human-rights outfit United Workers (UW), and the national nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project—had a good source for their prematurely declared victory: Theodore Atwood, the director of Baltimore City’s Office of Energy, who on Feb. 13 emailed UW’s Greg Sawtell that BRCPC had “voted to terminate the contract with EA.”
BRCPC's 10-year contract with EA, entered into in 2011, is for the purchase of 25 megawatts of power, about 15 percent of the Fairfield plant's expected 160-megawatt generation capacity, so losing it would be a significant blow to EA's revenue stream. The project also is in the midst of settlement discussions over permit violations alleged last year by the Maryland Department of the Environment, whose spokesman Jay Apperson on Feb. 17 told City Paper that there is "an agreement in principle" that "would require to company to pay a financial penalty" and undertake "an activity or capital project with environmental benefits, but the details have not been finalized." City Paper asked EA for comment about both situations, but received no response.
Back in 2011, when the contract was secured, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake extolled it in a press release put out by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, an organization of regional elected executives of which she was then chair and under which BRCPC is organized. "The contract to purchase energy from the new plant will help Energy Answers obtain financing," Rawlings-Blake declared in the press release, "and will also help protect local governments from fluctuations in the energy market." The EA contract with BRCPC, the press release explained, includes Baltimore City and Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties; Annapolis, Aberdeen, and Bowie; the public-school systems in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, and Howard counties; community colleges in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, and Howard counties; the Baltimore City Housing Authority; the Baltimore County library system; the Baltimore Museum of Art; and the Walters Art Museum.
Rawlings-Blake, along with then-Gov. Martin O'Malley, was a strident EA supporter when the project was announced in 2010. City Paper asked Rawlings-Blake's spokesman, Kevin Harris, for comment about the BRCPC vote, but received no response.
City Paper also asked new Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's spokesperson, Erin Montgomery, whether his administration anticipated taking a distinct approach to WTE than was taken under O'Malley, who, despite outcry from environmentalists, signed into law a bill that elevated it to a preferred form of renewable energy for achieving the state's mandated energy-policy goals. The move was a big potential boost to EA's Fairfield plant, which, should it start making power, would immediately become the state's top WTE generator, more than doubling the output of Maryland three existing WTE incinerators. As of press time, Montgomery had not provided a response.
Baltimore City Public Schools boardmember Cheryl Casciani, who also chairs Baltimore City's Commission on Sustainability, says that despite her efforts to seek clarity on what BRCPC's vote means she still isn't sure whether it is "binding on all the individual parties." But, for the incinerator's detractors, she says the vote "is a benchmark victory," because now "everybody has to look at" the contract. "If they hadn't done this organizing," Casciani says, "I don't think this would have come about."
The BRCPC vote was "something that we weren't expecting," says Sawtell, but "it would be really, really helpful for BRCPC to clarify how this process works from here. If at this point it means the ball is in the court of all these public entities" to decide whether or not to kill the EA contract, "that's great," he continues, because "the issue is being forced." He says he believes he and his allies are "pushing a set of contracting systems that haven't really been pushed before," all within the context of "a political overlay" involving "the support the project still has."
"It's great that the students took the lead," Sawtell continues,referring to Free Your Voice, who have been among the most outspoken and active critics of the plan, and "it has really opened up scrutiny about how this contracting process works, with BRCPC making decisions about how significant public resources go to such projects. There's still not a lot of clarity, but there's a lot of potential that we're excited about." Plus, he adds, "now there's an organized community opposing this project that extends far beyond Curtis Bay, and it's here, and it's active, so this significant move by BRCPC is a huge turning point on all of this."