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Baltimore spending board to extend agreement with incinerator firm with ‘emissions control’ upgrades

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

Baltimore’s spending board will likely approve an extension to its agreement with a private waste incinerator following a contentious legal battle that pitted the company against the city and roiled environmental activists.

Under the new agreement, Wheelabrator Technologies, whose Southwest Baltimore incinerator burns household trash from across the Baltimore region to generate energy, will invest significantly in lowering its emissions.

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The extension and settlement come after a federal judge ruled in March that a Baltimore air quality ordinance passed last year designed to force the city’s two incinerators to dramatically reduce emissions is invalid and uses a “flawed” understanding of state and federal environmental regulations. The city’s legal team filed an appeal in April with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Wheelabrator argued the city’s requirements would force it to shut down the incinerator, known as Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co., or BRESCO, while city legislators and environmentalists said the waste-to-energy plants pumped too much toxic pollutants into the air.

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Under the settlement going before the Board of Estimates Wednesday, the city will extend its waste disposal agreement with Wheelabrator through 2031, and the firm will invest nearly $40 million in emissions control upgrades, according to the panel’s agenda.

The agenda specifies that all emissions limits laid out in the agreement will meet or exceed those imposed by the air quality ordinance with the exception of nitrogen oxides, which will be reduced by nearly 50% of its current permitted levels.

“By entering into these agreements, Baltimore will be able to effectively implement its Zero Waste Plan while also delivering critical waste management services to the City of Baltimore,” the Board of Estimates agenda notes.

Also at issue is the shrinking capacity of the city’s Quarantine Road Landfill, which receives the ash from the incinerator.

“It is necessary to extend this agreement to preserve that capacity and to allow more waste diversion initiatives to be implemented,” the agenda reads.

News of the settlement discouraged environmentalists, who said any agreement that allows for the continued burning of trash in the city should be rejected.

Protestors holds a rally to shut down the BRESCO trash incinerator and advocate for building a zero waste infrastructure in July.
Protestors holds a rally to shut down the BRESCO trash incinerator and advocate for building a zero waste infrastructure in July. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

“It needs to be shut down; it can’t just be made ‘green,'” said Evelyn Hammid, the political team lead at the Baltimore chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a grassroots environmental advocacy organization. “We know it’s emitting toxic pollutants into Baltimore’s air and harming residents. It’s locking us into burning our trash.”

The city’s contract to supply waste to the Wheelabrator facility expires at the end of 2021. Advocates hoped that would have marked the closing of the plant. They say the facility is hurting the community’s health, and the city should direct its resources to carrying out a “Zero Waste Plan” that calls for expanded recycling and composting, among other initiatives.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke spoke out against the deal at the city council meeting Monday night, saying they are “going to keep BRESCO alive, much, much longer than we had hoped.”

The outgoing councilwoman called the extension a “great opportunity lost.” She said she was speaking most of all as a mother and a grandmother, referring to the effects of climate change on future generations.

“I’m upset, I’m angry,” she said. “Shame on us all.”

Upon the city air quality law’s passage, Wheelabrator officials said it would be impossible to retrofit the plant to meet the new standards by 2022. They did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

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Previously, Wheelabrator facility manager Austin Pritchard said he finds value in the “zero waste” idea. But he said processing 2,250 tons of trash every day is more difficult to do without an incinerator.

“Where does that go? It’s a really complex situation,” he said.

City Council President Brandon Scott said during the mayoral campaign that he was committed to breaking the contract in 2021. But it was not clear how he would vote on Wednesday. His spokeswoman did not comment Monday.

“The bottom line is that there is no substitute for actually investing in a zero waste future for Baltimore,” Scott tweeted on Oct. 14. "If the contract were extended, I would do everything in my power to ensure this is the last time we ever discuss extending their lease and work to divert as much waste as possible over my term as Mayor.

“Even if the city pulls out, the incinerator will continue to operate and seek new clients,” he continued. “Ultimately, only the Mayor can decide whether the city settles or not. I don’t like where we are and I am not satisfied with the options before us.”

Baltimore County also was set to extend its agreement with the incinerator Monday night, which, if passed, would run through September 2026.

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