In a surprise maneuver that drew cheers from environmental activists, the City Council effectively halted last night any chance of a speedy decision on a proposal to replace the polluting Pulaski Highway incinerator with a state-of-the-art plant.
A narrow majority of the council voted to indefinitely delay a public hearing on lifting a citywide moratorium on incinerator construction after Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham rose to announce the meeting would be held tonight.
"Councilman Cunningham, I would say that one day's notice is hardly good to citizens," Council President Mary Pat Clarke said.
Councilman John L. Cain, D-1st, who represents the East Baltimore neighborhoods surrounding the incinerator, then introduced a motion to postpone the hearing.
Mrs. Clarke and nine other council members supported the delay over protests from some colleagues who called it "unprecedented" and poor policy. Seven council members voted against the delay, and two abstained.
Environmentalists, recycling advocates and neighbors of the plant argue that even the most modern incinerators release toxic materials. They dispute that a new incinerator is needed and say it would hurt efforts to expand recycling.
Construction magnate Willard Hackerman wants to tear down his 40-year-old incinerator on Pulaski Highway and replace it with a $300 million waste-to-energy plant that he says could solve the trash problems of the region. He could not be reached for comment last night.
The administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is backing Mr. Hackerman's plan, which would require the council to lift the five-year ban on incinerator construction it imposed two years ago.
Mr. Hackerman has promised to give the city $10 million plus an unspecified share of revenues from the new plant if the council approves it.
Ten of the 19 council members co-sponsored a bill last month to end the moratorium. But after intense lobbying by environmentalists and the 1st District delegation that represents the Pulaski Highway area, many council members said they feared a rush to a swift decision.
Councilman Cunningham, D-3rd, denounced last night's action as "nonsense" and "an abuse of rules by a councilman."
The proposal is now likely to have to wait until fall because there are only two meetings left before the council adjourns for summer recess.
"The intent was to have a hearing," Mr. Cunningham said. "There was no plan to vote on anything. The problem in this whole process is that Mary Pat and certain people who are against the incinerator talk about this as if it is a done deal. It's extremely disrespectful of everyone involved."
The last-minute delay forces him to call off a scheduled hearing that a number of people had signed up to attend, Mr. Cunningham said.
But some of those who had signed up didn't mind.
"The issue is too important to be decided in one hearing," said Dan Jerrums, head of the Baltimore Recycling Coalition.