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Whatever happens in federal court, rest assured the future of trash disposal is not burning it | COMMENTARY

Aerial photo of Wheelabrator waste-to-energy incinerator on Russell Street in South Baltimore.
Aerial photo of Wheelabrator waste-to-energy incinerator on Russell Street in South Baltimore.(Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun / Baltimore Sun)

No question, it’s been a rough few days in public health and not just because of the coronavirus outbreak. First, there was the Trump administration’s decision late last week to suspend enforcement of some major environmental laws giving power plants and some other large polluters a free pass to not only pollute the air and water but to not even bother to report it. The EPA’s reasoning? That the viral outbreak makes it too tough for these polluters to conform to rules designed to protect human health. The decision was so alarming that Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles issued a statement of his own late Friday warning that his agency isn’t giving any broad-brush free passes. “Maryland remains fully committed to requiring compliance and we will continue to use enforcement as needed to protect the quality of our air, water, and land throughout the state and the Chesapeake Bay region,” Mr. Grumbles wrote.

But the bad news did not stop there. On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge George L. Russell III ruled that Baltimore overstepped its authority when it approved tougher air pollution standards more than one year ago that were likely to shutter the Wheelabrator Baltimore waste-to-energy plant located near the Interstate 95/I-395 interchange in South Baltimore. The incinerator is by far the city’s worst smokestack polluter, producing, according to at least one investigation, more lead, mercury and greenhouse gas emissions than any coal-fired power plant in the state. That it’s situated near predominately low-income African American neighborhoods like Cherry Hill and Westport is also a noteworthy part of the plant’s 35-year legacy.

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Make no mistake, Judge Russell did not rule that the plant produces no pollution. He did not rule that it should receive “green” energy credits as it has for years. His decision has little to do with the merits of burning trash to produce steam or electricity. His judgment addressed the technical matter of whether the Baltimore City Council had the authority to pass an ordinance that would have forced Wheelabrator to not only dramatically reduce its toxic output by 2022 but measure that output in real time or shut down its operations. The New Hampshire-based company sued on the grounds that the city could not supersede complex existing state and federal rules and the judge essentially shared that view.

Whether the judge was correct or not in his ruling remains in dispute. The city had predicted these objections and appears likely to appeal. But the more important question is this: Was Baltimore wrong in targeting the plant (along with a medical waste incinerator) for tough new standards? In this, there simply is no reasonable question. The future of waste disposal is not in burning it. It’s not in pumping tons of mercury or other toxic materials or even carbon dioxide into the air to the detriment of human health and the furtherance of increasingly dangerous climate change. The notion that burning trash is good for us was a product of two mistaken views — first, that the only alternative to solid waste disposal was trucking it to landfills where it would be buried (which is costly and environmentally suspect) and the second, that energy would otherwise be produced by burning fossil fuels.

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We understand today that there are alternatives in reducing the trash stream through recycling, composting and other methods and that renewable energy, particularly wind and solar, hold greater promise for the future. These are transitions that will take time, of course, but the sooner we remove failed strategies like subsidized waste-to-energy generation from our midst, the sooner we can develop more appropriate systems. And it should not be lost on anyone that living in the middle of the COVID-19 respiratory health crisis is no time to accept the respiratory health threat posed by voluntarily burning trash.

One way the matter may be more firmly settled is for the Maryland General Assembly to weigh in. An effort to beef up state standards on greenhouse gas emissions died in the shortened legislative session, the product (at least in part) of the mad scramble to wrap up business nearly three weeks early. The bill’s goal of zero emissions by 2045 essentially precludes a furtherance of trash incineration. Just as it implies a departure from burning fossil fuels. If lawmakers reassemble in May, as planned, they may want to put the bill back on the agenda. City residents would surely breathe easier if they would.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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