The waste-to-energy incinerator whose massive white smokestack greets thousands of motorists to Baltimore pumps out twice as much smog-causing pollution as similar trash-burning facilities, but Maryland regulators plan to fix that soon.
State officials said they expect to release rules this summer to require the Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co. facility to cut emissions so they're similar to those at so-called trash-burning power plants in Montgomery County and other states.
George S. "Tad" Aburn Jr., director of the Maryland Department of the Environment's air pollution division, said he expects to issue "a very tough, aggressive" rule that would force the plant to invest in technology to clean up its exhaust.
"Twenty years ago, BRESCO was top of the top," Aburn said of its emissions controls. "Now it's 20 years old and we see improvements that can be made."
Officials are striving to bring the state into compliance with a federal air quality standard that dates to 2008, even as they expect a newer limit on the pollutant ozone to come into effect within the next few years.
The Russell Street plant is the sixth-largest emitter of nitrogen oxides in Maryland. On "Code Orange" days, such as the one declared last Friday, nitrogen oxides react with organic compounds released by plants and by human activity to create unhealthy levels of ozone — a form of oxygen that is found naturally high in the atmosphere but can create or trigger breathing problems at ground level.
A spokeswoman for Wheelabrator Technologies, the company that owns and operates the BRESCO incinerator, said the company is "cautiously optimistic" it could reach a standard set for incinerators in Connecticut and New Jersey, which state regulators have told the company is needed to meet broad air quality goals. Those states limit nitrogen oxide emissions to a concentration of 150 parts per million.
Earlier this year, Wheelabrator asked state officials for a 170 parts per million standard. The company has said reductions beyond 170 ppm would be difficult because of the plant's age and design. But spokeswoman Michelle Nadeau said officials are working "continuously" and "proactively" to make the facility "state-of-the-art."
"We are working to ensure that if we can achieve the 150 ppm standard, it can be achieved continuously and without impacting the facility's operational reliability or compromising its ability to meet other MDE standards," Nadeau said.
Environmentalists argue the rule should at least be as stringent as the New Jersey and Connecticut limits.
"Incinerators are, especially for the amount of energy they produce, huge sources of nitrogen oxides," said Leah Kelly, a lawyer for the Environmental Integrity Project in Washington. "They produce much more NOx than coal-fired plants for the amount of energy generated."
The plant opened in 1985 as a solution to concerns of a national garbage crisis, and it now processes up to 2,250 tons of household waste a day. It has three trash-burning units that send heat to boilers creating up to 500,000 pounds of high-pressure steam per hour. Some of the steam goes toward generating energy, with a capacity of 64 megawatts of generation, and the rest goes into Veolia Energy's downtown steam loop — the same system that exploded under Eutaw Street last month.
BRESCO has burned more than 700,000 tons of garbage in each of the past four years, largely from Baltimore City and Baltimore County, but also from Anne Arundel and Howard counties, according to the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority.
The city sent 161,000 tons of garbage to the incinerator last year, about 80 percent of its refuse, public works officials said.
That combustion produced more than 1,100 tons of nitrogen oxides last year, pollution that frequently helps trigger air quality alerts across the region on hot summer days. A similar facility Montgomery County used to process much of its garbage emits half as much nitrogen oxide because it is newer and more easily upgraded.
In comparison, the coal, oil and gas units at the H.A. Wagner Generating Station in Pasadena emitted 3,100 tons of nitrogen oxides in 2015. The plant has a generating capacity of 976 megawatts.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Environmental Integrity Project have stressed health and environmental harms in asking MDE not to accept the improvements initially proposed by Wheelabrator. They emphasized that the incinerator receives subsidies from electricity ratepayers for generating what is considered renewable energy under a state law, estimating that BRESCO collected as much as $3.5 million through the sale of renewable energy certificates in 2015.
"They're getting a fair amount of money for producing ostensibly clean energy," Kelly said. "Some of that ought to be reinvested in good pollution controls to protect the lungs of the ratepayers who are subsidizing that."
Proponents of waste-to-energy generation cite an Environmental Protection Agency study that shows that despite incinerators' emissions, they can create a net reduction in greenhouse gases and are more environmentally friendly than landfills. Chris Skaggs, executive director of the state waste disposal authority, said that's because incinerators offset fossil fuel generation and save energy by collecting and recycling metals.
Destiny Watford, who won the Goldman Prize for environmental activism for a campaign she led against a failed incinerator project in Fairfield, was among those who testified before the Baltimore City Council this spring pushing for a city "zero waste" plan. She counters that debates over proper emissions limits and the impacts of incinerators versus landfills ignores strategies to eliminate waste altogether.
"There are many more options out there that we need to pursue," Watford said.
Aside from the incinerator rule, state regulators are focused on another, potentially more consequential effort to improve air quality: a petition the state made to EPA to restrict emissions from 36 power plants in states west and southwest of Maryland. State officials expect a response from the agency in the first half of this month.
Aburn said he doesn't see BRESCO's emissions as "being the difference between meeting the ozone standard and not meeting the ozone standard," potentially reducing the nitrogen oxide in the air by about a ton a day.
But state officials estimate that as much as 70 percent of the state's ozone pollution blows in from outside the state, making the EPA petition a more meaningful goal: a daily nitrogen oxide reduction of as much as 300 tons.