Maryland Senate again advances bill making Baltimore trash incinerator ineligible for 'green' energy subsidies

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)

For the second year in a row, the Maryland Senate advanced a bill Tuesday declaring that energy generated by burning trash should no longer be considered “green.”

That label qualifies trash incinerators, including the Wheelabrator Baltimore facility off Russell Street at Interstate 95, for millions of dollars in subsidies designed to promote clean, renewable energy that are paid for by electricity ratepayers across the state.


The Wheelabrator incinerator is the city’s largest single source of industrial air pollution, and was the main target of a recently approved city air quality ordinance.

Frederick County Sen. Michael Hough offered the proposal as an amendment to a bill calling for the state to generate half of its electricity from renewable power sources by offering subsidies to wind and solar farms as well as trash incinerators and paper mills.


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.

On the Senate floor, the Republican read aloud from a Baltimore Sun investigation that showed how the subsidies actually support emissions of harmful pollutants and greenhouse gases.

“It is time we end this farce,” Hough said.

Senators adopted the amendment by a 34-12 vote, and then gave the bill preliminary approval.

Even if the Senate grants the legislation final passage, the bill to require 50 percent renewable energy faces resistance in the House of Delegates. An attempt to kill similar legislation last week came within two votes of succeeding in a House committee, where the bill remains on hold.

Proposals to expand the state’s supply of renewable energy have divided lawmakers in recent years over concerns that they could make electricity more expensive.

And legislators and advocacy groups also disagree over whether trash burning should continue receiving subsidies.

The Baltimore City Council on Monday approved a bill 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 on how to dispose of waste that is currently incinerated.

The Environmental Protection Agency under former President Barack Obama said it preferred incineration to landfilling, which can generate more potent greenhouse gases and otherwise foul the environment. Wheelabrator officials say their facility is green because it prevents landfilling and because the energy and steam it produces reduces reliance on fossil fuels for electricity and heat.

“Waste-to-energy meets the two basic criteria for establishing what is a renewable energy source: Its fuel source — post-recycled waste — is both sustainable and non-depletable,” said Jim Connolly, Wheelabrator’s environmental, health and safety vice president, in a statement Tuesday. “There is no need to choose between wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.”

Opponents of trash incineration say the practice of waste incineration is nonetheless a threat to public health. The Baltimore incinerator, as well as a similar but relatively cleaner facility in Montgomery County, release harmful pollutants including mercury, formaldehyde and nitrogen oxides.

The thorny debate was on display in the Senate on Tuesday.

After the Baltimore City Council passed clean air legislation Monday that could lead a large trash incinerator to shut down, officials in the city and surrounding counties began considering their alternatives for if and when that consequence comes to pass.

Sen. Katherine Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the move would harm the incinerator and surrounding counties that use it to burn trash.

“What happens with your trash? There is no plan for any of this,” she said.


Frederick County Sen. Ron Young, a Democrat, joined Hough in supporting his proposal.

“We are not saying to shut down the plant in Baltimore,” Young said. “We would like to not see any new ones built. This is not something that belongs with clean energy.”

Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said he supported the amendment as a way to combat climate change, and focus all of the state’s renewable energy dollars on cleaner energy sources.

“We’re in a crisis when it comes to climate,” Ferguson said. “We have to incentivize solar and wind.”

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