As climate change predictions raise alarm, proposals target Baltimore trash incinerator

The Wheelabrator Baltimore incinerator processes up to 2,250 tons of waste daily. It is the city's largest single source of air pollution.
The Wheelabrator Baltimore incinerator processes up to 2,250 tons of waste daily. It is the city's largest single source of air pollution. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

Proposals to crack down on a Southwest Baltimore trash incinerator — both the city's main garbage receptacle and its largest single source of air pollution — are gaining momentum with support from a majority of the City Council and the Maryland General Assembly.

A city ordinance would demand that Wheelabrator Baltimore dramatically reduce emissions of harmful pollutants linked to asthma and heart disease, and could effectively close a facility that burns hundreds of thousands of tons of household waste from across the region each year.


State legislation would strip the incinerator of a “green energy” label that allows it to collect millions of dollars in subsidies from utility customers across Maryland, while also mandating that half the state’s energy come from renewable sources by 2030.

And those measures could be among a host of reforms to command attention in coming months aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing investment in clean energy. Lawmakers and advocates say growing public alarm over the consequences of climate change, detailed in recent government reports and evident in recent wildfires and storms, is stiffening political will to pass programs promoting solar and wind power and electric vehicles.


A Trump administration report released the day after Thanksgiving predicted climate change will mean thousands more premature deaths by the end of the century.

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.

“What is happening in California and elsewhere since last summer suggest this is not a joke. It is not ‘fake news,’ ” said state Sen. Delores Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat who chairs a committee that oversees renewable energy policy. “This planet is out of kilter,” Kelley said.

New regulations affecting the incinerator also could force officials to examine how much waste the region produces, and what to do instead of burning it. Only about a fifth of Baltimore’s trash bypassed the incinerator and went straight to a landfill in 2016.

Wheelabrator officials say their facility is vital for waste disposal while also, as a waste-to-energy plant, reducing the use of fossil fuels. They argue the real pollution problem is motor vehicles, which produce 10 times the emissions of their Baltimore incinerator.


“Waste-to-energy is widely recognized as renewable, sustainable energy and should remain recognized as such by statute,” Jim Connolly, vice president of environmental, health and safety for Wheelabrator, said in a statement.

Pollution concerns

The incinerator, once known as the Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co., or BRESCO, has been operating near Interstate 95 and Russell Street since 1985. At the time, it was viewed as an efficient and environmentally friendly replacement for landfills. As it reduces waste to ash, it generates electricity and steam used to heat downtown buildings.

And since 2011, it has qualified for a state program designed to create financial incentives for renewable energy. A Baltimore Sun investigation last year found that because state law classifies the incinerator on a par with solar and wind energy, it has earned more than $1 million a year, on average, in subsidies.

A garbage truck waits to enter the Wheelabrator Baltimore incinerator. File
A garbage truck waits to enter the Wheelabrator Baltimore incinerator. File (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

More recently, environmentalists have seized on the incinerator’s impact on the environment and public health. For each ton of trash it burns, it releases about a ton of planet-warming carbon dioxide, along with scores of pounds of lead and mercury. It’s responsible for the bulk of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide emitted by industry in Baltimore, according to Environmental Protection Agency data.

Despite such emissions, the EPA endorsed so-called waste-to-energy plants under former President Barack Obama. While they do emit greenhouse gases, their environmental footprint is considered to be smaller than that of methane-producing landfills.

City Councilman Ed Reisinger, whose district spans South Baltimore and includes the incinerator, said he proposed new restrictions on the incinerator’s emissions because they can harm public health across the city.

“It’s not just Westport or Mount Winans or South Baltimore. It depends on where the wind blows,” Reisinger said. “It’s not just people that live here. It’s people coming in to visit that have got to breathe those chemicals, too.”

The Clean Air Ordinance would require large incinerators in the city — the Wheelabrator facility and a medical waste incinerator in Curtis Bay — to reduce their emissions of nitrogen oxides to a concentration of 45 parts per million, on a par with standards imposed on newly constructed incinerators. That is a far more stringent standard than one state regulators are considering that would force the incinerator to reduce its output of the pollutant by one-fifth, to 145 parts per million averaged over 30 days.

It would also require constant monitoring and public reporting of incinerator emissions.

Wheelabrator Baltimore: By the numbers
(Adam Marton)

A group called the Energy Justice Network has been leading a push to reduce waste in the city, and thus eliminate the need for trash incineration and the pollution it creates. Mike Ewall, the group's director, said his aim is to clean up the air. If the ordinance’s stringent demands mean that the incinerator shuts down, “we won’t be upset about that,” he said.

“It makes sure they’re continuously monitoring so we’re not just guessing what’s going into the air,” he said. “People have the right to know.”

Connolly said the Wheelabrator facility is already subject to, and consistently meets, federal and state air quality regulations. The company already continuously monitors its emissions, and it completes hundreds of routine compliance checks every day, he said.

All but two council members have signed on as co-sponsors of the proposal, which is expected to receive a hearing in January.

Despite the strong support, the debate could be complicated because the city is so reliant on Wheelabrator to dispose of its trash. Only about 20 percent of city waste is tossed into recycling bins, and of what is tossed into the trash, about four-fifths goes to the incinerator. The rest of the trash, along with incinerator ash, goes to the city’s Quarantine Road landfill in Hawkins Point, which has 17 percent of its capacity remaining and is expected to fill up by 2027.

City public works officials did not respond to a question about how they would dispose of trash without the incinerator, or what it would cost. They said Mayor Catherine Pugh’s administration is early in the process of developing a new solid waste master plan. A Pugh spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Connolly insisted the incinerator should remain a central part of the region’s waste strategy. In addition to Baltimore’s trash, it receives loads of garbage from across the region, including Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.

“Waste-to-energy is globally recognized as a form of environmentally responsible sustainable waste management and clean energy generation,” he said. “The U.S. EPA and similar regulatory bodies and countries across the globe endorse and aggressively invest in waste to energy.”


‘Renewable’ energy?

With the Maryland General Assembly legislative session set to begin Jan. 9 in Annapolis, Democrats and environmental groups are preparing to resume what has become an annual debate over how much renewable energy the state should strive to use. While a proposal to double the goal from a quarter to half of the state’s electricity failed last year, they say they are hopeful the dire climate forecasts will make the legislation an easier sell.


A coalition led by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network says a bill it is drafting has the support of enough members of both the House of Delegates and the Maryland Senate to pass by a veto-proof margin.

Sen. Brian Feldman, a Montgomery County Democrat who is sponsoring what is again being called the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act, said he thinks the recent federal report’s warnings about the perils of inaction on climate change are likely to persuade lawmakers. Along with weather hazards, the report known as the National Climate Assessment also predicted billions of dollars in economic losses related to climate changes by the end of the century.

“It makes the case even more compelling both on the economic and environmental front,” he said.

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

A measure to remove trash incineration from what is known as the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard is expected to be included in that bill. The portfolio law forces utilities such as BGE to buy certificates from renewable energy projects, effectively creating a subsidy from ratepayers that promotes the green energy industry.

The state Senate this year voted to disqualify trash incinerators from receiving the subsidies, but in the final days of the legislative session the House did not follow suit. David Smedick, campaign and policy director for the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, called it a big step nonetheless. And with concerns about climate change heightened in recent months, he said the proposal could go farther in 2019.

“I think all the reports and just the general buzz about the issue nationally and locally really does have people thinking hard about where we’re getting our energy from,” he said.

Kelley, who this summer was named chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, said she hopes to limit the subsidies to cleaner power sources, such as solar and wind energy, and eliminate support for such fuels as so-called black liquor, a byproduct of paper manufacturing that is used to power mills and is considered a renewable fuel. A politically influential plant in Western Maryland has fought off past attempts to take away black liquor’s renewable energy label.

“Why should we subsidize it?” Kelley said.

The same renewable label qualifies the incinerator for subsidies.

Officials in Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration did not answer questions about whether they would promote acceleration of the state’s renewable energy goals, proposals that Republicans have criticized as too costly for utility customers. But officials say Hogan supports efforts to combat climate change. He has signed legislation to raise the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals beyond those called for in the international Paris climate accord and to ban the natural gas harvesting technique known as fracking.

At a recent news conference, Hogan boasted that he has been a national leader on climate change.

“My position is 100 percent different from the president of the United States,” the governor said. But he declined to take a position on any climate-related legislative proposals, saying he was not familiar with them.