The Baltimore City Council displayed good intentions in voting unanimously to beef up emissions limits on the Wheelabrator trash incinerator, the city’s biggest source of industrial air pollution. The city has long grappled with high rates of asthma, especially among children and in low-income, minority neighborhoods. Health advocates have said chemicals the incinerator spews into the sky trigger that and other respiratory diseases, and whatever we can do to address those health disparities is good.
But with the decision, and Mayor Catherine Pugh’s announcement that she plans to sign the measure, the city has now put itself in the lurch since the owners of the Wheelabrator say they will shut down the incinerator, which rises above the city on Russell Street near Interstate 95, rather than incur the costs to meet the standards.
If that happens, what exactly is the city going to do with 700,000 tons of trash from Baltimore and surrounding counties that the incinerator processes each year? It’s a big and expensive question that really should have been answered before the city enacted legislation to raise the standards. We don’t buy the argument that the city had to bind itself to this action before anyone made serious efforts to find an alternative. The Department of Public Works has just started the process of creating a long-term plan for the city’s waste-disposal system, with the first citizen hearing to be held on the issue later this month. That clearly could have happened before the council’s vote.
Now, the cart has been put before the horse, and the city must scramble to find a solution.
In an ideal world, the owners of the Wheelabrator would go along with the change and retrofit the facility to meet the new standards. But the owners have been very vocal about their objections to the plan, filling up residents’ mailboxes with opposition material, and they have said bringing the existing building up to the new standards is impossible. Building a new facility would be too costly, they have said.
Perhaps city officials think they will be able to coax the incinerator’s owners into changing their minds in the next few years. But even if they do, it would almost certainly come at a cost to city taxpayers one way or another.
In the meantime, the city should begin exploring alternatives.
There are other landfills where the trash could go, but there are problems with that as well. The city’s Quarantine landfill is already 82 percent full, and the federal government has said air pollution from landfills is in some respects worse than that from incineration. Shipping trash to landfills elsewhere presents additional costs and logistical problems.
The only real solution is to reduce the amount of trash city residents generate, something favored by groups like Energy for Justice that want to see cities move away from incinerators and landfills. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. In a 2017 report, The Institute for Local Self-Reliance found the city’s residential recycling rate is 28 percent, compared to a national recycling rate of 35 percent. The group, which supported the new Wheelabrator standards, has suggested the city encourage more recycling by providing residents with containers like they did in 2016 when they took out $9 million in low-interest loans to give every household a 64-gallon trash can. People currently recycling also need to be better taught about how to do so properly, as city officials have said more trash is ending up in recycling bins.
Composting could be encouraged by building composting facilities throughout the city and creating a municipal pickup service for compost.
City residents are already strapped by high tax rates and rising water and sewer bills, but officials could consider a pay-as-you-throw trash collection system. More than 7,000 towns across the country charge residents based on how much trash they need processed. The small town of New Windsor in Carroll County, with about 1,500 people, began a pilot program last November that ends in June. In the first couple of months trash collected decreased by 44 percent, and recycling, which residents are not charged to have picked up, nearly doubled, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
The good thing is that Mayor Catherine Pugh has long said she would like to see people move more to composting and other ways to keep trash out of the landfills. Now she needs to make it happen — and quickly.