A permit that allowed New York-based Energy Answers International to build a trash-to-energy plant in South Baltimore is no longer valid, state environmental officials told the company Thursday, a significant setback for the controversial project.
Officials with the Maryland Department of the Environment said the permit expired because there had been no construction activity at the site in Fairfield since October 2013.
Energy Answers has planned to build a $1 billion electricity generation facility that would burn a fuel derived from trash. The Albany, N.Y., company first pitched the project in 2009, and the Maryland Public Service Commission approved its permit in 2010.
A representative for Energy Answers did not respond to requests for comment.
Environmental advocates and community groups had called on regulators to enforce a provision of the permit that forbade a lull in construction activity lasting 18 months or more.
The Washington-based advocacy group Environmental Integrity Project alerted state and federal environmental regulators last month that they intended to file a citizen lawsuit demanding enforcement of the permit's terms.
Opponents had argued the project would harm air quality in a part of the city where pollution levels are already high. They say the existing levels are to blame for elevated levels of respiratory illnesses and cancer.
The dispute might have cost the plant prospective customers. A group of 22 local governments, school systems and nonprofit institutions organized by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council had committed to buying power from the facility in 2011 but backed out of that agreement last year.
A coalition that has fought the project includes residents of the Curtis Bay, Brooklyn and Brooklyn Park neighborhoods and Free Your Voice, an organization created by United Workers and students at nearby Benjamin Franklin High School.
Dozens of members of the coalition staged a sit-in at Maryland Department of the Environment offices in Southwest Baltimore in December, calling on the agency to enforce the permit.
The groups cheered the department's actions Thursday.
"It's really excellent news for public health reasons," said Dr. Gwen Dubois, a leader of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility, who was among several protesters arrested at the sit-in. "It's such an environmental justice issue."
Officials with the Department of the Environment said they took the protests into account, but their decision was based on "the specific question of whether the requirement for continuous construction has been satisfied."
They found that it had not.
Officials said they are passing the matter on to the Public Service Commission for further action. The commission has the power to cancel Energy Answers' permit.
Spokeswoman Tori Leonard said late Thursday the commission had not received a request from the Department of the Environment to amend or revoke the permit.