When the owners of the Pulaski Highway incinerator in East Baltimore recently hinted they might replace the old plant with an updated facility that could serve much of the metropolitan area, they offered an encouraging sign that a regional approach to solid-waste disposal might actually stand a chance of becoming a reality.
Since at least the early 1980s, top officials of the metro jurisdictions -- Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties -- have discussed taking just such an approach. The consensus that has emerged is to spread various facilities around the map so both the pain and the gains would be apportioned. One jurisdiction could host a trash-to-energy incinerator, for example, while another could take a composting plant. Sharing the burden in this way makes more sense each passing year, as landfill space shrinks ever smaller and disposal costs climb ever higher.
However, the six local governments and the Baltimore Metropolitan Council -- the non-profit corporation that oversees the subdivisions' regional efforts -- have done little more with their waste strategy than waste time talking about it. One area disposal expert probably had it right when she said government officials will put a regional plan into action only when they have been scared into realizing that handling their trash problems individually will prove far more expensive than they could afford.
That's no way to set smart policy for the long run. Officials must move beyond generalities to specifics and then begin the task of persuading their constituents of the wisdom of a broad, farsighted program. A step in this direction could be taken this spring when an often-delayed BMC plan is finally due to be released. It reportedly will include lists of facilities and possible sites for them.
The Metro Council has also been involved in talks to bring a yard-waste composting plant to eastern Howard County. Slated to serve Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties and Baltimore City, the facility would markedly reduce the local waste stream, a fifth of which consists of leaves, grass and other yard debris.
Citizens of the Baltimore region can take hope from reports of the composting plant and the possible retooling of the Pulaski Highway incinerator. But the hope will fade quickly if local jurisdictions don't soon begin turning all the talk about metro-wide waste plan into action.