Construction magnate Willard Hackerman is making Baltimore an offer that seems too good to refuse.
He wants to tear down his polluting trash incinerator on Pulaski Highway and replace it with a larger, "state of the art" garbage burner that he says would solve the waste disposal headaches of the entire metropolitan area.
"This is a regional facility for waste management into the next century," Mr. Hackerman said.
But environmentalists, recycling advocates and leaders of communities near the incinerator warn that the city and the region -- not just trash -- would get burned.
They say that even modern incinerators release toxic material, and citizens cannot stand any more of this pollution. "The city's going to become the burning dump of the region," said Neil Seldman, director of a research organization that promotes alternatives to incineration.
Mr. Hackerman has not specified where the $300 million needed to build the waste-to-energy plant would come from. Nor does he have commitments for trash, though he hopes to get it from Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties and possibly Carroll.
But he promises to give the city $10 million plus an unspecified share of the revenue from the venture if the City Council approves it.
In cash-strapped Baltimore, Mr. Hackerman's proposal has turned heads at City Hall. The Schmoke administration supports it. And after intense lobbying, a majority of the City Council -- 10 of the 19 members -- co-sponsored a bill last month to lift a moratorium on incinerator construction.
Just two years ago, the council unanimously imposed the ban.
Tomorrow, the city planning commission will hold its second hearing in a week on the bill, and supporters are pushing to get it passed before the council adjourns in late June for the summer.
But opponents say that officials should take time to study the matter, since the city and the region both lack comprehensive plans for recycling and waste disposal. "To try to push it through is not fair to the people of the city," said 1st District Councilman Perry Sfikas, who represents areas near the incinerator.
The fact that the city is even considering Mr. Hackerman's proposal represents a turnabout. Five months ago, the two parties were in court, haggling over the terms of a waste-disposal contract to maintain the old incinerator.
Built 40 years ago, it sits in a compound behind a wire fence on Pulaski Highway, just west of I-95. Three black smokestacks rise from a complex of red brick and gray metal structures; trash-laden trucks rumble across the grounds.
In 1981, Mr. Hackerman bought the plant from the city for $41 million. In return, the city agreed to supply the facility with municipal garbage and to pay 85 percent of the operating costs.
The deal was struck when William Donald Schaefer, Mr. Hackerman's friend, was mayor. The contract came to be criticized as a sweetheart deal that cost the city millions. Mr. Schaefer was elected governor in 1986.
After Kurt L. Schmoke was elected mayor in 1987, the city tried to find a way out of the agreement. Mr. Hackerman offered to renegotiate if the city would let him build a new waste-to-energy plant there, but the City Council responded in 1992 with a five-year moratorium on incinerator construction.
Last December, when talks broke down, Mr. Hackerman filed suit, demanding that the city pay $75 million, much of it for overhauling the plant to reduce its air pollution. The city in turn threatened to condemn the property and turn it into a water treatment or recycling plant.
The legal sparring ended almost as soon as it started. In January, Mr. Hackerman agreed to drop his suit and let the city out of its contract.
Within weeks, Mr. Hackerman claimed in a letter to state environmental officials that the Schmoke administration had promised to back his plan to build a new incinerator.
Earlier this month, George G. Balog, director of public works, wrote to the City Council saying that the new facility was needed -- certification that was legally required before the council could consider lifting the incinerator moratorium.
Opponents charge that the Schmoke administration backed the need for new incineration in exchange for Mr. Hackerman's decision to let the city out of the old contract, which officials claim was costing taxpayers $4 million a year.
Mr. Hackerman demurs on the charge, saying "I'd rather not answer that." Baltimore officials deny the charge and say they support the Hackerman plan on its own merits.
"My goal has been to get the city out of that  agreement," Mayor Schmoke said. "My other goal was to see the current facility demolished."
Unlike the previous deal with Mr. Hackerman, Baltimore would not have to pay for upkeep of the new incinerator or send it any trash, city officials point out.
"This is a wonderful thing for the city," Mr. Hackerman said in an interview at the Towson offices of his construction firm, Whiting-Turner Contracting Co.
All the city's residential garbage that is not recycled is now burned at the Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co. (BRESCO) plant in southwest Baltimore, which could expand under the pending bill.
But city officials point out that 900,000 tons of trash are being buried every year in landfills run by the city and surrounding counties; moreover, Baltimore's Quarantine Road landfill will be full in seven years.
"Landfill space is running out," Mr. Balog told a planning commission hearing last week.
But environmentalists and recycling advocates say that the Baltimore area does not have a landfill crisis. They contend that city officials and Mr. Hackerman underestimate how much more trash can be composted or recycled -- and say the region's 27 percent recycling rate would stall and perhaps even decline if a major new incinerator is built.
"Incineration burns recyclables," said Cynthia Hitt, president of the Baltimore Recycling Coalition.
Mr. Hackerman vows to build a recycling plant with the new inciner
ator to remove reusable glass, metals and plastic from the
garbage before it is burned. "I'm very strongly in favor of recycling," he said, but added, "recycling alone . . . isn't going to do it."
While Mr. Hackerman and the city agree that a new incinerator is needed, there are still differences.
Mr. Hackerman says he would give Baltimore $10 million as "a payment for being a good neighbor." City officials say the money is owed for claims under the old agreement. And Mr. Hackerman says "whether real estate taxes would be paid and so forth . . . would have to be negotiated with the city," while Mr. Schmoke says the city has consistently refused to make concessions.
It is differences like these that raise questions about broader promises by Mr. Hackerman, including one that he would not accept out-of-state trash at the new incinerator.
Some opponents fear a replay at Pulaski of the problems at a regional medical waste incinerator in South Baltimore, whose owners began importing out-of-state waste after the facility ran into financial trouble.
Mr. Hackerman doesn't deny that he hopes to make money from his venture. But he points to new jobs in construction and other benefits for the city. And the 75-year-old businessman -- whose past largess has ranged from $5 million for a new Johns Hopkins cancer center to paying for the funerals of those whose families are too poor to afford them -- promises to plow most profits into his philanthropic activities.
"I try to make money so that I can give it away," he said.
Some opponents of the new plant say that the economics of incineration in the 1990s will work against Mr. Hackerman.
To succeed, waste-to-energy plants need trash to burn. But thanks to increased recycling and the recent recession, some municipalities that guaranteed a steady supply of garbage to big new incinerators don't have enough trash to keep the plants busy.
And any new waste-to energy plant here faces stiff competition for trash from new "mega" landfills in central Virginia and in York County, Pa., which are already luring garbage from central Maryland with bargain-basement disposal fees.
No formal agreements
Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker says he would be glad to send his county's trash to a new regional incinerator in Baltimore. But while Mr. Hackerman claims varying degrees of interest from several counties, none has formally agreed to supply garbage.
Mr. Hackerman brushes off concerns about the project's finances.
"That's my problem," he said.
A more immediate problem for Mr. Hackerman is an order from the state Department of the Environment requiring the Pulaski incinerator to reduce emissions of carbon monoxide by 1996. To overhaul the facility's five burners and put on new pollution controls could cost $60 million or more.
The order is the most recent in a string of citations issued to the Pulaski plant for air and water pollution violations, as nearby residents have complained for years about odors, smoke and gritty fallout.
Over the years, Mr. Hackerman's firm has paid $80,000 in city and state penalties. Though he dismisses the fines as trivial, he says his firm has spent about $10 million to fix the problems -- most of it paid by the city.
Yet the plant continues to pollute the air, according to recent state inspection records. Mr. Hackerman admits he would rather not spend millions more to bring his outmoded plant up to standards.
Replacing the incinerator would allow installation of the newest pollution controls, he said, making the plant "the cleanest in the country, if not the world." It also would generate enough power to light 60,000 homes, he said.
Environmentalists are unimpressed; they say that toxic metals such as lead and mercury escape from even modern incinerators, and the burning of paper and plastics produces traces of dioxin.
Moreover, some recent medical studies have linked respiratory ailments in cities with fine dust particles that are emitted by incinerators and other combustion sources.
In Armistead Gardens, a low-income community of older rowhouses down the road from the Pulaski incinerator, many residents are angry about the old plant -- and the plans for a new one.
"I don't see why all the garbage disposals have to be built in low-income districts," said Gwyneth Moore, 65, an Armistead resident for more than 30 years. "You don't hear of an incinerator in Roland Park."
Paula Fishel, 33, said the Pulaski plant should be shut down. Period.
"They should make it mandatory to recycle," she said.
Mr. Hackerman, whose business success and generosity have earned him membership on numerous boards and commissions, began pushing his plan to the City Council two months ago at a breakfast meeting at the Sheraton Inner Harbor.
During the next few weeks, he met with council members and spoke to them by telephone. Even on May 9, when the bill was introduced, he was working the phones, trying to line up additional co-sponsors.
"He asked me three times, at least," said 2nd District Councilman Carl Stokes, who opposes the bill.
"I'm not supportive of lifting the moratorium unless it can be shown that there is an absolute need and unless there's going to be real regional cooperation," Mr. Stokes said. "When regionalism is spoken about, it generally means, 'Baltimore can have the garbage.' "
Others praise the Hackerman plan. Sixth District Councilman Melvin L. Stukes says he is swayed by the promise of the $10 million payment to the city and of large minority participation in construction of the new plant.
"To me, it's business," he said.