Maryland calls on Baltimore trash incinerator to cut emissions of a harmful pollutant by one-fifth

Dante Swinton, an organizer with The Energy Justice Network, leads college students on a "toxic tour" of polluting sites in Baltimore. The Energy Justice Network always starts the tour at the Wheelabrator incinerator, which was long known as BRESCO.

Maryland environmental regulators are demanding that a Baltimore trash incinerator cut its emissions of one harmful air pollutant by about one-fifth and study whether it can clean its exhaust even more aggressively.

The Wheelabrator Baltimore incinerator, the city’s single largest source of industrial air pollution, would be required to reduce its output of nitrogen oxides by about 200 tons a year under a regulation proposed Friday. The compounds contribute to smog and irritate the respiratory system, increasing the likelihood of lung diseases and stroke.


But the incinerator, which burns most of the region’s trash, is not being held to as stringent a standard as a similar facility in Montgomery County because it’s older and less sophisticated. The state is not requiring Wheelabrator to install more modern pollution controls, instead allowing it to tinker with its existing technology at an expected cost of about $250,000 a year to its owner, New Hampshire-based Wheelabrator Technologies.

Maryland environmental officials are mounting a challenge to a recent Environmental Protection Agency decision in which the federal regulators said they wouldn’t force power plants from Pennsylvania to Indiana to tighten pollution controls.

Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said the state is being more lenient on the Baltimore incinerator because the regulations “translate to more work” for the facility, which opened in 1985.


The proposed rules will be the subject of a public hearing next month.

State environmental regulators and Wheelabrator officials have been in talks about nitrogen oxide emissions for the past three years, as the Maryland Department of the Environment works to bring the Baltimore region into compliance with federal limits on ozone pollution. Chemical reactions in the air involving nitrogen oxides create ozone, a form of oxygen found naturally in higher levels of the atmosphere, but which creates smog when present closer to the ground.

Jim Connolly, Wheelabrator’s vice president of environmental health and safety, said that back-and-forth “has shown that the proposed standard can be achieved through additional optimization of our existing control systems.”

He said the company will continue working with state regulators “to complete these important regulations.”

Environmental groups that have pressed regulators on the incinerator’s emissions had mixed reactions to the proposed rules.

Leah Kelly, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, said expert analysis suggests the facility could do more with its existing pollution controls to cut pollution. She said neither Maryland officials nor Wheelabrator responded to the Washington-based advocacy group’s requests that the incinerator’s owners evaluate other technologies considered to be more effective at controlling nitrogen oxide emissions.

“We believe that this rule could have been stronger, but it is also an important step forward,” she said.

Dante Swinton, an organizer with the Energy Justice Network, called the proposed requirements “minimal, at best” given the significant health impacts the air pollution has on surrounding communities. The group has been pushing City Hall to adopt a “zero waste” philosophy and working in neighborhoods across south and southwest Baltimore to encourage recycling, reducing the city’s dependence on the incinerator.

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.

“It’s really nothing in the long term if we’re not moving away from incineration, period, in the long run,” he said.

The Baltimore incinerator, known to many as BRESCO, burns more than 700,000 tons of garbage a year from Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties, along with other jurisdictions across the mid-Atlantic. It is considered a renewable energy facility under a state incentive program, allowing it to collect millions of dollars each year in subsidies from Maryland electricity ratepayers.

Under the proposed rules, beginning May 1, 2019, the Baltimore incinerator’s nitrogen oxide output would not be allowed to exceed a concentration of 150 parts per million, averaged out over a 24-hour period. The standard would be 10 parts per million lower for the Montgomery County Resource Recovery Facility, a trash incinerator owned by Covanta Energy that opened in 1995 near the Potomac River in Dickerson.

Both incinerators will also be held to new nitrogen oxide limits averaged out over a 30-day period starting May 1, 2020: 145 parts per million for the Baltimore facility, and 105 parts per million for the one in Dickerson.

With the start of summer Thursday, harmful ground-level ozone pollution is likely to rise as temperatures do in the coming months.

Wheelabrator Baltimore emits about 1,100 tons of nitrogen oxides each year, about twice as much as the Montgomery facility. The Baltimore incinerator will have to cut that by about 200 tons under the proposed rules.

Wheelabrator had pushed for nitrogen oxide limits as high as 170 parts per million.

Jill Stueck, a spokeswoman for Covanta, said the Montgomery facility “is prepared to meet the proposed NOx emission limits.”

The state is also requiring Wheelabrator to conduct a study by the end of 2019 exploring the feasibility of further reductions in its emissions, including cost-benefit analyses of installing new pollution control technologies.

“We think it’s a very strong approach,” Grumbles said.

Kelly called it “critical” that the state closely scrutinize the report, and said the Environmental Integrity Project and partner groups plan to hold the state to using the information to set stronger pollution limits on the incinerator.

Before making the regulations final, the state Department of the Environment will take public comment on the pollution limits through Sept. 21, the same day it has scheduled a public hearing on the proposal.

That is more than a year after state regulators last brought the incinerators’ owners and environmental and community groups together for a public meeting on proposed pollution rules.

Grumbles said the process was slowed as the state’s air pollution regulators have turned their attention to fighting actions and proposals by President Donald Trump’s administration that he said could hurt air quality. But he said any delay did not change the deadlines by which the trash incinerators would have to meet the new emissions standards.

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