City Council proposes clean air rules forcing Baltimore trash incinerator to cut pollution — or shut down

An ordinance introduced before Baltimore City Council on Monday would require an incinerator that burns much of the region’s household trash to drastically reduce its emissions of dangerous pollutants — regulations that could force it to shut down.

The legislation also proposes that the Wheelabrator Baltimore incinerator in Southwest Baltimore to constantly track data on the chemicals coming out of its smokestack and to post it online. The city health department would be charged with overseeing that monitoring.

Councilman Ed Reisinger, whose district spans South Baltimore and includes the incinerator, said he introduced the proposal because environmental groups came to him with concerns about the facility’s impact on public health across the city. It is the city’s largest single source of many hazardous air pollutants, every year releasing thousands of pounds of greenhouse gases and toxic substances such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde.

“It’s not just Westport or Mount Winans or South Baltimore. It depends on where the wind blows,” Reisinger said. “It’s not just people that live here. It’s people coming into visit that have got to breathe those chemicals, too.”

Jim Connolly, vice president of environmental, health and safety for Wheelabrator Technologies, said company officials “look forward to reviewing the specifics of the proposed legislation.”

“We have been actively engaged with the Maryland Department of the Environment in support of stronger statewide air quality standards as we continue to convert everyday post-recycled residential and business waste into clean energy and help responsibly manage the more than 1 million tons of waste that are not recycled in the city each year,” he said in a statement.

A group called the Energy Justice Network has been leading a push to reduce waste in the city, and thus eliminate the need for trash incineration. Mike Ewall, the group's director, said his aim is to clean up the air, and if the ordinance’s stringent demands mean that the incinerator shuts down, “we won’t be upset about that.”

“It makes sure they’re continuously monitoring so we’re not just guessing what’s going into the air,” he said. “People have the right to know.”

All but two members of the council joined Reisinger in sponsoring the legislation, something Ewall called “encouraging.”

The proposed ordinance follows a series of non-binding resolutions the council has passed targeting the incinerator and its emissions. It has called for state environmental regulators to crack down on the facility’s emissions, and for the city to develop a strategy to move toward a zero-waste future.

The clean air legislation goes farther. “It emphasizes that something has to be done,” Reisinger said.

It would require large incinerators in the city — the Wheelabrator facility and a medical waste incinerator in Curtis Bay — to reduce their emissions of nitrogen oxides to a concentration of 45 parts per million, on par with standards imposed on newly constructed incinerators. That is a far more stringent standard than a Maryland Department of the Environment proposal. The state is considering a nitrogen oxide limit of 145 parts per million averaged over 30 days, which would reduce the Wheelabrator incinerator’s emissions of the asthma-inducing pollutant by one-fifth.

It would also impose limits to sulfur dioxide and mercury emissions that are on par with the emissions controls on new incinerators.

Waste incineration is considered a source of renewable energy, and because of that, it is eligible for green energy subsidies from Maryland electricity ratepayers every year. A Baltimore Sun investigation last December found the Wheelabrator facility collects millions of dollars through the clean energy program every year.

But environmental groups say it doesn’t make sense to put facilities like the incinerator on equal footing as solar or wind energy — while the electricity it generates may be consider renewable, it isn’t clean, they say.

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