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5 a.m. at the mayor’s house: Activists sound the alarm on plans to renew Wheelabrator contract

At 5 a.m. outside the East Baltimore home of Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, environmental activists sang songs and urged Young not to sign a new contract with its incinerator operator before he leaves office.

“We have basically a ticking clock right now… to make sure that the mayor doesn’t make a huge mistake,” said Franca Muller Paz, a Green Party candidate who is running for City Council and was among the protesters Saturday morning. “This incinerator is poisoning our families.”

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Young, a Democrat who will leave office in December, did not respond to inquiries from The Baltimore Sun.

Democratic City Council President Brandon Scott, the party’s nominee for mayor in the November election, has said he’s committed to ending the Wheelabrator contract when it expires at the end of next year.

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Environmental advocates have fought for years to shut down the towering smokestack next to Interstate 95, which has produced pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, lead and mercury. They want the city to instead carry out a “Zero Waste Plan” that calls for expanded recycling and composting, among other initiatives.

Last month, Democratic City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke introduced a bill to block Baltimore from entering into contracts that authorize the use of trash incinerators or other waste-to-fuel plants. Clarke, who is set to retire in December after decades on the council, said the arrival of new leadership that month will mark “a new era” for the city. “And smokestacks don’t fit.”

In 2019, City Council passed the Baltimore Clean Air Act, which forced private waste incinerators to cut down on pollutants. But the incinerator operators sued, and a federal judge in March ruled in their favor. The city filed a request for the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider that decision. Since then, the city has been in settlement negotiations with incinerator operators, a fact that alarms environmentalists, said Mike Ewall of Energy Justice Network, which advocates for shutting down incinerators.

Asked if the city was considering a new contract with Wheelabrator, Clarke said: “There’s no question about it." She added that such an agreement would have an enormous impact over the next decade, which she says will be a crucial time for climate change. “We are not going to stand quietly by to lose this opportunity."

Wheelabrator processes up to 2,250 tons of trash every day, from the city as well as surrounding Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties. Meanwhile, the city-owned Quarantine Road landfill is nearing capacity. A 2019 analysis projects that waste disposal costs could rise by millions of dollars if the facility shuts down.

Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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