The right to breathe clean air in Baltimore is at risk. For 35 years, Baltimore’s air has been fouled by the city’s largest air polluter, the Wheelabrator/BRESCO trash incinerator. This large smokestack by I-95 with “BALTIMORE” emblazoned on it spews toxic lead, mercury, dioxins, particulate matter, acid gases and nitrogen oxides into our air, contributing to asthma attacks, cancer, COPD, heart attacks, strokes and learning disabilities.
A study of just one of these pollutants found that Wheelabrator’s pollution causes $55 million in annual harm to health, mostly from cutting lives short. Harvard found this same pollutant (fine particulate matter) increases deaths from COVID-19. With Black residents suffering the most from COVID-19 deaths in Maryland, this is a social justice issue that cannot be ignored.
Thankfully, Baltimore City Council has been routinely standing up for the community in supporting efforts for clean air, environmental justice, and a transition away from incineration to “zero waste,” and the creation of five to 10 times as many jobs through the practices of reuse, recycling, and composting. Since June 2017, the Baltimore City Council has passed seven unanimous resolutions backing these goals, urging the mayor and city agencies in this direction. In February 2019, they unanimously passed the Baltimore Clean Air Act. If not for a bad lower court ruling, that law would have taken effect this month, forcing the closure of Wheelabrator’s trash incinerator as well as Curtis Bay Medical Waste Services, the nation’s largest medical waste incinerator. Neither incinerator is needed as we have adequate non-burn alternatives already in place in the city.
The city’s contract to burn waste at Wheelabrator ends the last day of 2021. It’s worrisome that, in the last ten weeks of Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young’s administration, there’s talk about signing a new contract early to keep burning Baltimore’s trash for an additional five to 10 years, binding the hands of the next mayor.
Contrary to incinerator industry public relations, trash incinerators do not turn waste into energy. Wheelabrator burns up to 2,250 tons of trash a day from the city, six other counties, and six other states as far as Georgia. For every 100 tons they burn, 28 tons come out as toxic ash dumped in the city and county’s landfills, according to an analysis by Energy Justice Network. The other 72 tons become air pollution. None of it magically turns into good things.
Incinerators create new toxic chemicals in the process of burning and expose many more people through air pollution, plus fine ash that blows off of trucks and the landfill. Incinerators are far worse than using landfills directly, with greater emissions of greenhouse gases, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, toxic chemicals and acid gases. With incineration, after putting most of the waste into our air, you end up with smaller, but more toxic landfills. What’s dangerous about landfills is not their size, but their toxicity.
Wheelabrator Baltimore is 35 years old. The average lifetime of the 44 trash incinerators that have closed since 2000 is just 23 years, according to an analysis by Energy Justice Network. Only one incinerator in the nation has made it past 40 years old, and that Wheelabrator incinerator near Boston is experiencing major noise problems impacting the community. Connecticut recently announced that they’ll close their largest incinerator because its breaking down and would cost over $300 million to refurbish.
Expecting Wheelabrator to last another five to 10 years under a new contract is unrealistic and risks the city being on the hook for major costly repairs. Zero waste alternatives are realistic. There’s a landfill at the end of the pipe in any scenario. Rather than burn to reduce waste in landfills, zero waste solutions can reduce waste just as much, while creating more jobs and less pollution. The city’s been working for over six years to permit an expansion of their publicly-owned Quarantine Road Landfill. Once expanded, there will be room for the city’s (unburned) trash until around 2040, so long as the waste reduction recommendations in the city’s new solid waste master plan are followed.
We have two choices. Settle the Baltimore Clean Air Act appeal, forfeiting the right of all local governments in Maryland to have local clean air laws, and cut a deal to keep burning waste, with the city taxpayers on the hook for $95 million in air pollution upgrades that will still leave Wheelabrator as the city’s No. 1 air polluter. Or let this aging incinerator close already, defend the Baltimore Clean Air Act, and get serious about waste reduction so we can preserve our landfill space.
Mike Ewall (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of Energy Justice Network, a nonprofit organization working to transition communities from incineration to Zero Waste.