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Baltimore City Council gives preliminary OK to tighter air standards for Wheelabrator trash incinerator

The City Council gave preliminary approval Monday to a bill that would force the owner of a Southwest Baltimore trash incinerator to dramatically reduce emissions from what is the city’s single largest source of air pollution.

Virtually all of city households’ trash, along with waste from around the region, is burned at the Wheelabrator Baltimore facility, whose white smokestack towers over Interstate 95 near Russell Street. While its owners say it produces less greenhouse gases than a landfill, neighbors and environmentalists say it is fouling the air with too much mercury, lead and asthma-inducing nitrogen oxides.

But as the legislation advances through the council, concerns that it could substantially raise the cost of garbage disposal for the city threaten to stall the bill. Wheelabrator officials have said the proposed rules would be impossible for the 35-year-old incinerator to meet and effectively force it to close.

Last year, city public works officials estimated waste disposal costs could rise by more than $136 million over four years if that were to happen.

Two of the bill’s 13 sponsors — Councilmen Eric Costello and Leon Pinkett — abstained from voting to advance it on Monday, citing fears about those costs. The bill otherwise passed 12-1, with Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer the only “no” vote.

Both Costello and Pinkett said they wanted to stop the Wheelabrator incinerator from polluting communities around it, including Westport and Cherry Hill, but couldn’t agree to approve the legislation until city officials provide a fuller picture of its potential fiscal impact. Costello called the vote “very irresponsible” and said the bill forced him to abstain from voting for the first time in his four and a half years on the council.

But Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said those concerns didn’t deter her from supporting the ordinance and forcing public works officials to come up with cleaner waste disposal plans.

“Until the Clean Air Act is law, plans will not be made,” Clarke said. “Nothing happens until meaningful change occurs.”

Earlier Monday, the conflict played out in a tense exchange at the council’s regular working lunch.

Council members have sharply criticized the city’s Department of Public Works for failing to provide a cost analysis of the bill, even though a detailed estimate was provided to state lawmakers last year when the General Assembly was considering whether trash incineration should be eligible for state renewable energy incentives. Nevertheless, Ed Reisinger, the council’s land use and transportation committee chairman, advanced the council bill to the preliminary vote Monday.

During the lunch, Pinkett questioned why it was necessary to have the vote without a better understanding of the cost.

“You’re essentially causing us to vote or not vote based upon not having the full picture,” he said.

“It’s to kill the bill,” Clarke said.

“It’s not to kill the bill,” Pinkett responded. “I wouldn't have voted for it in favor out of the committee if I was against it.”

As the debate grew more heated, Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young intervened.

"Woah, woah, woah, let's back up for a minute," Young said. "Let's hug and don't shoot."

“Mr. President, respectfully, it’s not to kill the bill,” said Costello, who also wanted to see the fiscal analysis.

When Young adjourned the meeting, Costello quickly left the room. “This is so irresponsible,” he said as he left.

Monday night’s preliminary approval sets up a likely final vote Feb. 11. At that stage, however, council members also could vote to amend the bill or send it back to be considered further by Reisinger's committee.

Meanwhile, Reisinger said he plans to meet with officials from the city's finance and public works departments Friday to learn more about the potential costs of the legislation. Young organized the meeting.

The bill would require large incinerators in the city to significantly reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, mercury and other pollutants. And it would require constant monitoring for a variety of pollutants, shared online in real time.

It also would apply to Curtis Bay Energy, which is said to be the nation’s largest incinerator of medical waste. Representatives for that company told the City Council last week that the legislation is misguided, suggesting that emissions from the Curtis Bay incinerator are smaller than those of other large city institutions.

The policy could have repercussions in the health care industry, they added, because incineration of some types of medical waste is required in 31 states.

Because of that, Costello suggested Monday that the council should consult city hospitals before taking up a final vote on the bill.

But the Wheelabrator incinerator has attracted more attention for its emissions. It is Baltimore’s chief industrial source of such pollutants as lead, mercury, hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde, and public health advocates and environmentalists say the facility contributes to unusually high levels of asthma and other respiratory diseases in Baltimore.

The company counters that its waste-to-energy technology is environmentally friendly and endorsed by the Environmental Protection Agency under former President Barack Obama as a better alternative to landfills. At a hearing last week, Jim Connolly, vice president of environmental, health and safety for Wheelabrator Technologies, said only a brand-new facility could comply with the pollution standards the city ordinance would impose.

Wheelabrator has launched a direct mail campaign to city residents urging them to ask the City Council to reject the air quality bill.

“Tell them we need a sensible and realistic approach to Clean Air in Baltimore, but The Clean Air Act is not a solution,” one mailer says.

An environmental and public health coalition called Clean Air Baltimore has said the real solution is not the incinerator, but increased recycling. They say only about 14 percent of the city’s household waste is recycled, but if that rate increased, the costs of waste disposal would go down.

“The city’s two large waste incinerators are afraid, and are showering city hall with lobbying power and attorneys,” wrote Mike Ewall, executive director of the Energy Justice Network, in an email to the coalition’s supporters. “Please help push back and support clean air in Baltimore!”

Baltimore produces more than a million tons of solid waste every year, and more than a third of that goes to the Wheelabrator incinerator under a contract that’s in effect through 2021. The rest is recycled or goes to industrial landfills. The incinerator ash largely ends up in the city’s Quarantine Road landfill, which is on pace to fill up in 2026.

Last year, in an analysis of state legislation that Wheelabrator also said could shut down the Baltimore incinerator, city public works officials suggested that if that happened, they could be forced to accept more waste at the Quarantine landfill and also ship some garbage to other landfills around the region. They estimated annual costs of $2.2 million for additional drivers and laborers and $23 million in new annual operating costs, plus a $58 million one-year cost to establish a new waste transfer station.

The city also would lose the estimated $10 million a year Wheelabrator pays Baltimore in taxes and fees for disposal of its ash, the analysis shows.

But public works officials said those figures are not firm, and suggested the council should get a more detailed fiscal analysis from the finance department.

At a hearing on the air quality bill last week, Kristyn Oldendorf, a policy analyst for public works, told council members the department is in the early stages of a new long-term plan for solid waste disposal, and plans to solicit input from residents later this year.

So it’s not clear what public works officials would do if the incinerator were to close, as Wheelabrator is threatening.

“We’d need to study what makes the most sense for the city,” Oldendorf said.

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