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)

The Baltimore City Council is poised to pass a bill Monday that would force a large Baltimore trash incinerator to dramatically reduce its emissions of harmful pollutants, even as a new analysis projects that waste disposal costs could rise by millions of dollars if the facility were to shut down.

Owners of the Wheelabrator Baltimore incinerator, the city’s single largest source of air pollution, have said it would be impossible to retrofit the facility into compliance with the stringent air quality standards that are being proposed.

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City public works and finance officials have estimated the costs of sending trash to landfills instead: As much as $16 million more each year than the city’s current solid waste budget.

The cost could become a factor as the council votes Monday night on what it’s calling the Clean Air Act. While the entire council has expressed concern the incinerator, formerly known as BRESCO, is harming public health, a minority said they needed to take into account the legislation’s impact on the city budget.

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

The City Council has given preliminary approval 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 the city’s trash is burned at Wheelabrator Baltimore.

The waste-to-energy facility that towers over Interstate 95 burns hundreds of thousands of tons of the region’s household trash and generates steam to heat downtown buildings.

Proponents of the legislation said the financial analysis overestimates the actual impact of the incinerator’s closure. It assumes Wheelabrator would shut it down immediately, even though the city is under contract with the incinerator through 2021 and the stringent pollution limits wouldn’t go into effect until 2022. It also ignores the savings that could be realized in reducing the cost of treating asthma and other illnesses caused by air pollution, they say.

And it overlooks the fact that the city is already moving toward a waste plan that doesn’t rely on burning trash, said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke. The council has passed resolutions promoting recycling and a “zero-waste” plan for the city. Clarke said the bill leaves plenty of time for those efforts to be developed.

“We’ve been working up to this gradually in this entire term of office,” Clarke said. “We’ve got to do this, and this is one step that takes us a leap into the future we need to create.”

But Wheelabrator says the city cannot afford to lose the incinerator. The company argues it is more “green” than trucking trash to landfills, emphasizing that the Environmental Protection Agency prefers waste-to-energy technology to landfilling to reduce greenhouse gases.

In a series of flyers sent to city residents’ mailboxes in recent weeks, Wheelabrator says its facility “is part of the solution,” providing steam that powers hundreds of downtown businesses while preventing landfilling.

Jim Connolly, vice president of environmental health and safety for Wheelabrator, said only a brand new waste-to-energy facility could comply with the bill’s emissions standards. Its monitoring requirements are also unrealistic, he added.

“They’re requiring us to install equipment that doesn’t exist,” he said.

Direct mailing urges residents to oppose Baltimore's clean air act. Here's what the bill would do.

Wheelabrator Baltimore sent direct mail to city residents urging the City Council to reject its proposed Clean Air Ordinance. Here's what the bill would do, and what the flyer left out.

He said the company would explore legal options if the city passes the ordinance. Wheelabrator has raised questions about whether the council has the authority to regulate incinerator emissions, or if that power is limited to state and federal authorities.

The Wheelabrator incinerator opened in 1985 and burns more than 700,000 tons of trash every year from residents of Baltimore, Baltimore County and other jurisdictions in the region and, to a lesser extent, in other states. Among industrial polluters, it is Baltimore’s chief source of pollutants, including nitrogen oxide, lead and mercury.

The bill, sponsored by all but two council members, would require large incinerators in the city to significantly reduce emissions of many pollutants and require them to constantly monitor their emissions. Proponents say communities around the incinerator have long suffered with poor health, and with above-average rates of asthma, in particular.

The legislation would also apply to Curtis Bay Energy, a South Baltimore medical waste incinerator that is the largest of its kind in the country. Curtis Bay Energy officials told the City Council that its emissions are lower than those of many other large city institutions and that it serves a key role in the health care industry, which requires incineration of some types of medical waste in most states.

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City Council proposes clean air rules forcing Baltimore trash incinerator to cut pollution — or shut down

Baltimore City Councilman Ed Reisinger on Monday introduced a clean air ordinance that would require the Wheelabrator Baltimore trash incinerator and a medical waste incinerator in Curtis Bay to drastically reduce and continuously monitor their emissions of hazardous air pollutants.

At the council’s preliminary vote, Costello suggested that the city should have engaged large hospitals to get their thoughts on the legislation.

But most of any hesitation toward the bill concerned Wheelabrator and the city’s waste stream.

The analysis, which has not been shared publicly but was shared with council members late Friday night, lays out a handful of alternatives to the incinerator. It suggests the city would spend $98.6 million over seven years to send trash directly to its Quarantine Road landfill, which already receives ash from Wheelabrator. Or it estimates $73.6 million in expenses over six years to send trash outside the city, through a new transfer station that would be built.

Councilmen Eric Costello and Leon Pinkett, who had raised concerns about the ordinance’s financial impact, could not be reached for comment Sunday. Both abstained during a preliminary vote on the ordinance Feb. 4, citing those worries.

The bill otherwise passed the preliminary vote, 12-1.

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