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Aerial photo of Wheelabrator waste-to-energy incinerator on Russell St.
Aerial photo of Wheelabrator waste-to-energy incinerator on Russell St. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun / Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore City Council approved a bill Monday applying stringent emissions limits on the city’s biggest source of industrial air pollution, a step that could end the burning of trash across the region without a plan for how to pay for sending more waste to landfills.

The council passed the measure 14-0 without debate or a roll call vote. The final approval came Monday despite concerns voiced by some members about the change’s estimated $15 million cost and the lack of a clear plan to get rid of the hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage that are currently burned at Wheelabrator Baltimore’s plant with its iconic smokestack next to Interstate 95.

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Councilman Edward Reisinger, the bill’s sponsor, said before the vote that he resisted lobbying to delay the vote — including a request for more discussion from Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration and a campaign by the incinerator’s owner to sway public opinion against the legislation.

“There’s a lot of pressure,” Reisinger said.

Pugh has not said whether she will sign the bill. A spokesman for the mayor said she supports clean air policies but needs to review the legislation.

The legislation targets two incinerators in the city: the Wheelabrator Baltimore waste-to-energy plant with the smokestack that towers over Horseshoe Casino and M&T Bank Stadium and Curtis Bay Energy’s massive medical waste incinerator. Council members, environmentalists and public health advocates said chemicals spewed by both contribute to high rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases in neighborhoods with low-income residents.

The dispute over the legislation pits the health of city residents and the cleanliness of the air they breathe against efforts to minimize emissions of greenhouse gases. The incinerators pump chemicals into the skies over Baltimore that can trigger asthma, but federal authorities rank burning trash as better for the climate than landfills.

Wheelabrator officials say the 34-year-old incinerator is better for the environment than trucking garbage to landfills, noting that the new legislation “will result in 37,000 new tractor-trailer trips” on local roads and associated truck emissions. The facility generates electricity, producing carbon dioxide in the process, but the company argues that energy otherwise would come from burning fossil fuels without the benefit of disposing trash. Landfills also release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as trash decomposes.

“It is noteworthy the council rushed this bill to a vote without hearing testimony from a single independent subject matter expert,” said Jim Connolly, a Wheelabrator vice president. “Independent scientists with expertise on this issue all agree that waste-to-energy is environmentally preferable to landfilling, which will become the only option for the city under this bill.”

A state renewable energy program is sending millions of dollars of ratepayer subsidies to Baltimore's biggest polluter, the Wheelabrator incinerator. Community activists in South Baltimore are trying to increase recycling to essentially put the incinerator out of business.

The incinerators’ owners say it would be impossible to retrofit their plants to meet the standards set out in the legislation and so would have to close if the strict standards go into effect.

The legislation “contains unachievable requirements such as installing monitoring equipment that does not exist,” Connolly said. “Further, this bill unlawfully undermines the authority of the federal and state agencies to establish safe air quality standards.”

Wheelabrator burns more than 700,000 tons of municipal waste every year, slightly more than half of it from Baltimore households. The rest comes mostly from Baltimore County and from other jurisdictions in Maryland and other states.

It is Baltimore’s chief industrial source of pollutants, including nitrogen oxide, lead and mercury.

The legislation would require large incinerators to significantly reduce — and continuously monitor — chemical emissions.

Reisinger called concerns about the cost and the lack of a plan for the city’s trash disposal overblown. The legislation’s provisions would not take effect until 2022, giving officials time to develop a strategy. The council already also passed non-binding resolutions to divert more waste into recycling streams and to develop a “zero waste” plan, both of which intend to eventually end the city’s reliance on trash burning.

If Pugh signs the bill, Reisinger said, it’s not as if “Wheelabrator’s going to put a sign on the front fence ‘closed.’”

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The city is under contract to send its trash to the incinerator through 2021.

Maryland Department of the Environment regulators have proposed new regulations for the Wheelabrator Baltimore trash incinerator that would cut its emissions of one harmful air pollutant by about 15 percent and require it to study whether it can clean its exhaust even more aggressively than that.

“Wheelabrator’s using a scare tactic that they're going to close up,” Reisinger said.

The Baltimore Department of Public Works, which handles trash collection, issued a 16-page analysis of the legislation’s potential impacts. It tallied up the costs of switching to landfills, estimating the cost of shipping the city’s trash elsewhere at about $15 million a year. Landfilling the trash in Baltimore would cost slightly less — about $12 million.

The analysis also notes that the incinerator supplies steam that “many downtown businesses depend on.” The steam system is used to heat many commercial, government and health care buildings served by the network in downtown and Harbor East.

In addition to the increased shipping costs, Wheelabrator’s Connolly said the city would face other economic consequences from having to spend more to “combat the escalation in illegal dumping anticipated to result from increased tipping fees at local landfills.”

“Similarly, the city will lose valuable direct and indirect revenue from Wheelabrator,” he added.

Wheelabrator officials have suggested the company would challenge the law in court if it passes.

A lawyer for Wheelabrator argued in correspondence to the Baltimore city solicitor’s office that the city lacked the legal authority to impose rules on the incinerator. The correspondence was obtained by The Baltimore Sun under a Public Information Act request. The city solicitor’s office rejected that argument, concluding that Reisinger’s bill passed legal muster.

Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.

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