Where will the trash go? Baltimore and surrounding counties consider alternatives if incinerator closes

Wheelabrator waste-to-energy incinerator on Russell St. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)
Wheelabrator waste-to-energy incinerator on Russell St. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun) (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

After the Baltimore City Council passed clean air legislation Monday that could force a large trash incinerator to shut down, officials in the city and surrounding counties began considering how to dispose of their garbage if they are no longer able to burn it.

The Wheelabrator Baltimore waste-to-energy plant near Russell Street and Interstate 95 processes more than 700,000 tons of trash every year — about half of that trash comes from Baltimore households and nearly 40 percent from Baltimore County. The rest comes from Howard and Anne Arundel counties, other Maryland jurisdictions and out of state.


While supporters of the city’s Clean Air Act say the ultimate goal is to reduce waste, the Wheelabrator incinerator’s closure would create new and unpredictable pressures on area landfills.

Mayor Catherine Pugh said the city is exploring expanding its Quarantine Road landfill, but added that officials also would have to get creative to process and reduce the waste stream.


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.

“We’re going to have to move our communities into composting and other methods of taking care of our own waste,” Pugh said. “There are other technologies that are being prepared. Some of them won’t be ready in time for this, but we will have to figure it out.”

The Baltimore City Council legislation would impose stringent air pollution limits on the Wheelabrator plant and Curtis Bay Energy, a large medical waste incinerator, starting in 2022. Wheelabrator officials have said it would be impossible to retrofit their facility to meet the air standards, and that only a brand new waste-to-energy plant could comply with the ordinance, which Pugh said she intends to sign.

The Quarantine Road landfill in South Baltimore’s Hawkins Point and Baltimore County’s White Marsh landfill could be impacted most if the 34-year-old Wheelabrator plant closes.

The Quarantine landfill is about 82 percent full and on track to reach capacity in 2026. But that’s assuming the waste stream doesn’t change and maintains its current pace. The landfill mostly receives ash from the incinerator.

In 2017, the Wheelabrator facility produced about 200,000 tons of ash, about 70 percent of which went to the Quarantine Road landfill and 30 percent to Baltimore County’s Eastern Sanitary landfill, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The 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 though questions remain unanswered about the domino effects it could have on the city's waste stream.

Baltimore Public Works Director Rudy Chow called a meeting Tuesday and asked his staff to begin gathering information about the impact of Wheelabrator’s potential closure, and about the city’s waste disposal options, spokesman Jeffrey Raymond said.

“We are looking at pressures on our landfill at Quarantine Road and the best ways to respond,” Raymond said. “We’ll be looking at that in the days and weeks ahead.”

Meanwhile, the department is just starting to develop a plan to guide the city’s waste disposal through 2040. It will take input from residents at a series of public meetings, two of which have been scheduled for Feb. 28 and March 11.

Baltimore County spokesman T.J. Smith said the county would divert trash it sends to Wheelabrator — about 280,000 tons in 2017 — to the Eastern Sanitary Landfill where it dumps the rest of its trash. The landfill is about 54 percent to capacity, according to state data.

Proposals to crack down on the Wheelabrator Baltimore trash incinerator, the city's largest single source of air pollution, are gaining momentum. A majority of lawmakers in the City Council and Maryland General Assembly support the environmental measures, citing government climate change reports.

County officials are working to develop “a long-term cost-effective solution,” Smith said.

“We are involved in multiple conversations about long term strategies,” he said in an e-mail.

About 2 percent of the trash Wheelabrator burned in 2017 came from Howard County. The county government does not send household waste there, but some commercial haulers do, County Executive Calvin Ball said in a statement.


Nonetheless, Ball said the incinerator’s closure could force some adjustments to the county’s waste disposal plans.

“The loss of the Wheelabrator will be a challenge,” Ball said. “We will collaborate with our neighboring jurisdictions, evaluate our options, and embrace environmentally friendly practices towards holistic waste management efforts that will also increase our recycling and composting rates.”

About 3 percent of the garbage burned at the incinerator in 2017 came from Anne Arundel. County officials said they don’t send any household waste there, and suggested it came from private haulers. The county’s only active landfill is not projected to fill to capacity until 2060, they said.

The rest of the waste Wheelabrator processes comes in small amounts from St. Mary's, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and from states including Delaware, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and West Virginia.

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

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