Baltimore’s BRESCO incinerator can’t continue to operate as it’s done in the past accepting refuse from the city and surrounding counties and pumping out noxious smoke laden with toxic chemicals that impact nearby low-income, largely Black neighborhoods — often leaving children with high rates of asthma and struggling to breathe. The Baltimore City Council last year wisely passed legislation severely restricting the amount of pollution the Southwest Baltimore plant could spew into the air. But the tougher standards in the Baltimore Clean Air Act were disputed by Wheelabrator Technologies, which claimed the company would simply have to shutter the waste-to-energy facility and then, along with medical waste incinerator operator Curtis Bay Energy, successfully challenged them in federal court. That left the burden on city lawyers to appeal the case to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals while simultaneously negotiating for tougher air pollution standards that perhaps the incinerators would accept and drop their lawsuit.
Yet now comes longtime City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke who on Monday introduced “Ban the Burn at Every Turn” legislation that would bar the city from entering into any further contracts involving the use of trash incinerators. This is notable because the city’s current agreement with Wheelabrator is set to expire next year. Should the measure go into effect, one imagines that all negotiations would be off. The company would have no incentive to voluntarily agree to significantly reduce its output of pollutants and would double-down on its legal case, arguing for the higher court to accept the ruling by U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III that air pollution standards are a matter best left up to the Maryland Department of the Environment and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The problem is complicated. First, it’s not clear that Baltimore is in any way prepared to handle its solid waste output if burning it is taken off the table. In case Councilperson Clarke hasn’t noticed, the state of the city’s recycling program is currently somewhere between sad and pathetic. In late August, the city canceled recycling pickups in favor of creating 17 drop-off locations. The Department of Public Works had a crew shortage because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But even before that action, the city had a low recycling rate and a lot of famously trash-strewn streets, this unpleasant circumstance having been highlighted by President Donald Trump’s own Twitter account, helping reinforce his view that Baltimore is a “disgusting rat and rodent infested mess.”
Next is the matter of money. Whatever the city does going forward, it’s going to be costly at a time when tax revenues are falling because of that very same pandemic. Recycling is certainly the ideal solution but it’s hard to see it as the cheaper one as it requires greater public education, more pickups, more sorting and likely more enforcement efforts. Would city residents prefer to see the money come out of education? Out of public safety? Out of street repair or housing? Those are the kind of choices city government will face as resources diminish. Again, that doesn’t make the transition away from incinerators unimportant, but it ought to be weighed against other potential sacrifices facing Baltimore residents.
It would be one thing if Baltimore had a viable, affordable option of what to do with all that trash now carted to the BRESCO plant, but simply falling back on trucking it to the Quarantine Road Landfill, which will inevitably reach its capacity (even with a proposed expansion), or somehow assuming the recycling program will rise to the occasion is not a plan. It’s closer to magical thinking.
Let’s face it, closing the door on Wheelabrator, the city’s biggest air polluter, seems easy, and, for those who have suffered in the shadow of the incinerator, likely very satisfying. But it’s just not that simple. What ought to be before the City Council is not a moratorium on incinerator contracts, but a sensible plan to deal with solid waste that could actually work. Better not to tie anyone’s hands at this point and see what negotiators (and perhaps the city’s next mayor) can offer in the way of workable solutions.
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.