Schmoke's garbage flip-flop


Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's capitulation before foes of the Pulaski incinerator shows how an approaching election changes politician's priorities and makes him see the writing on the wall.

By trying to lift Baltimore's five-year incinerator moratorium, the mayor hoped to do a favor for Willard Hackerman, the powerful construction magnate and bankroller of elections. But when this attempt ran into trouble, Mr. Schmoke came to the quick realization that he will need all the votes he can get in his re-election bid next year. Mr. Hackerman cannot deliver those votes, whereas environmentalists and community activists can. Thus, the mayor's facile turnaround.

The mayor's new stand is that the issue of modernizing the Pulaski incinerator has to be studied along with the city's overall strategy for disposing of trash and solid waste. This position is so logical it is amazing that it took this long for the mayor to recognize it.

The fact is that no one seems to know what the city's -- or the Baltimore region's -- incinerator needs will be in future years. A failing medical waste incinerator in Hawkins Point is a warning that these kinds of facilities cannot be permitted to be constructed unless a need has clearly been proven or their economic viability shown.

The whole issue of solid waste is a contentious one. Environmentalists argue that everything ought to be recycled. The consistent position of this newspaper has been to support recycling. But we also support selective incineration, believing that a major city's solid waste program must be a multi-pronged one.

At the present time, Baltimore has not one but two general purpose incinerators. And even their operators cannot agree on the size of the future market for incineration. This is partially due to the total absence of any regional planning. Increasingly, each jurisdiction seems to be going its own way in taking care of solid waste processing needs.

This helter-skelter approach to what in our view ought to be a regional policy has been made easier in recent years by sudden changes in the availability of land-fill space. Just a few years ago, dire warnings were issued by local governments that they were quickly running out of land-fill capacity. In those conditions, incineration seemed to be a solution.

But the recent recession and successful recycling efforts have drastically reduced the amount of garbage the city and the counties produce. Also, cheap land-fill space has become plentifully available in near-by states, making incinerators often an economically unviable alternative.

Studying the issue first is the right thing to do.

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