Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said she will sign legislation setting strict new emissions standards for waste incinerators in the city, backing a move designed to improve air quality but that could upend how the region disposes of its trash.
The City Council unanimously passed the legislation Monday night but Pugh had been silent about what she would do for most of Tuesday. The bill’s sponsor said the mayor’s office had asked him for a delay ahead of the vote amid questions about the potential $15 million-per-year cost to the city of hauling trash to landfills rather than burning it.
The legislation sets strict air quality standards for two incinerators in the city, and the operator of a large trash burning plant says the rules would put it out of business.
Pugh confirmed she would sign the measure and said the city needs to look to alternatives for how to dispose of waste. She said she will be seeking ideas from inside city government and from the private sector.
“We’ve got to figure out how do we do more composting so we don’t fill up our landfill so quickly,” the Democratic mayor said in an interview late Tuesday. “We have to embrace the future and look at how do we use more technology.”
Word of Pugh’s support first emerged Tuesday afternoon when an environmental group posted a video to Facebook showing the mayor endorsing the legislation at an event in New York City.
The video was shared by the Energy Justice Network, a group that advocated passing the legislation. Mike Ewall, the group’s director, said the video was sent to him by someone at the New York event, but he declined to identify the person.
The video shows Pugh speaking in front of a small audience.
“Someone asked me the other day, yesterday, are you going to sign the bill, and I said, ‘I want clean air,’ so absolutely,” Pugh said in the video.
The trash incinerator, Pugh said, is “going to be shut down.”
The legislation takes aim at the Wheelabrator trash incinerator, with the iconic smokestack that rises over Interstate 95, and Curtis Bay Energy’s massive medical waste incinerator. The trash incinerator serves the city and surrounding jurisdictions, burning more than 700,000 tons of municipal waste every year, and generating electricity and steam that is used by downtown Baltimore businesses.
But it is also Baltimore’s biggest industrial source of asthma-triggering pollution, pumping nitrogen oxide, lead and mercury into the air.
Told of the mayor’s decision, Councilman Edward Reisinger, the legislation’s sponsor, called it “fantastic.”
The bill would impose strict limits on emissions of some harmful chemicals and require continuous emissions monitoring. Wheelabrator Baltimore officials have said the plant could not meet those standards, meaning its facility would have to close.
The legislation wouldn’t fully go into effect until 2022.
Baltimore officials have not developed a plan for how to dispose of waste without using the incinerator, but in a 16-page analysis of the bill the Department of Public Works analyzed the cost of sending the garbage to landfills either in the city or elsewhere.
The council previously passed resolutions urging the city to divert more waste into recycling streams and to develop a “zero waste” plan, both of which intend to eventually end the city’s reliance on burning trash.
Reisinger, whose district is home to both incinerators, had accused Wheelabrator of using scare tactics in the debate over the legislation and said that concerns about the cost of disposing trash without the incinerator were overblown.
Wheelabrator lobbied against the measure, arguing that burning trash is better for the environment than hauling it by trucks and dumping it in landfills. It sent mailers to city residents and took out ads, saying closing the incinerator would lead to more truck traffic on the city’s roads. It highlighted the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s preference for burning trash rather than dumping it.
Ahead of a preliminary vote, a few council members raised concerns about the costs associated with the legislation. But on Monday night, none voted against final passage.
Reisinger said the communities that live near the incinerators have been battling them for years, but he credited a new class of council members elected in 2016 for enabling the legislation to pass.
“They got it,” Reisinger said. “It was a health issue to them.”
If the mayor signs the legislation, Wheelabrator could mount a challenge in court. Its lawyers have argued that the city lacks the authority to regulate the incinerator’s emissions.
A representative of Wheelabrator couldn’t be reached for comment late Tuesday. After the vote Monday, a Wheelabrator executive said council members had rushed to act without hearing expert testimony.
“Independent scientists with expertise on this issue all agree that waste-to-energy is environmentally preferable to landfilling, which will become the only option for the city under this bill,” said Jim Connolly, a vice president at the company.