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Baltimore extends trash incinerator contract despite protests

Shashawnda Campbell of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust straightens a cardboard tombstone that her organization, part of the Zero Waste Coalition, placed on the lawn in front of City Hall this morning in an effort to bring attention to the issue during the city Board of Estimates meeting that is happening inside.
Shashawnda Campbell of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust straightens a cardboard tombstone that her organization, part of the Zero Waste Coalition, placed on the lawn in front of City Hall this morning in an effort to bring attention to the issue during the city Board of Estimates meeting that is happening inside. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore’s spending panel approved a 10-year extension Wednesday of the city’s agreement with a private trash incinerator, over protests from residents who decried what they said was a lack of transparency in the process.

The Board of Estimates signed off on the $106 million contract with Wheelabrator Technologies by a 3-2 vote after hearing testimony from those who opposed the extension.

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Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Acting City Solicitor Dana Moore and Acting Public Works Director Matthew Garbark voted in favor of the contract.

City Council President Brandon Scott, who is also mayor-elect, and Comptroller Joan Pratt voted against it.

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Under the agreement, the city’s trash will continue to be burned at the south Baltimore facility known as Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co., or BRESCO, through 2031.

The 35-year-old incinerator is Baltimore’s largest single source of air pollution. The extension requires Wheelabrator to invest nearly $40 million in emissions control upgrades.

Young called the contract “a fair balance between fiscal prudence and social responsibility.”

As the outgoing mayor spoke at the end of the meeting — which was held remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic — opponents chanted, “Zero waste! Zero waste!” over him before they were muted.

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Critics say the incinerator, located in the Westport neighborhood, is hurting the community’s health, and the city should instead focus on a “Zero Waste Plan” that includes expanded recycling and composting.

“My father died from lung cancer, so I understand all of this,” Young said. “But we have to have somewhere to send our trash."

He said Baltimore citizens are currently “refusing to recycle.” Curbside recycling has been suspended by the Department of Public Works for months amid the pandemic.

The contract extension represents a compromise between the city and Wheelabrator, which had sued in federal court over the Baltimore Clean Air Act. The local ordinance, set to take effect in 2022, would force incinerators to dramatically reduce their output of pollutants.

In March, a federal judge ruled against the city, finding that the local law would undermine U.S. regulations.

The city appealed the ruling, but withdrew that appeal Wednesday after the board approved the agreement with Wheelabrator.

Moore, the city’s chief lawyer, said during the Wednesday meeting that “there was a good chance that we would not prevail on appeal.”

She said if the city were to lose that appeal, it would not have the ability to force change “that we all feel is important for Baltimore.”

The board’s vote came after a morning demonstration at City Hall — and after several opponents turned to the courts in a last-minute attempt to stop the contact extension.

Demonstrators from the South Baltimore Community Land Trust placed cardboard tombstones on the lawn in front of City Hall, with messages like “Shut it Down” and “Fund Zero Waste.”

Group member Shashawnda Campbell said the board’s decision to discuss the settlement plan the day after Election Day was particularly troubling, and a slap in the face for activists who have worked on the issue for years.

“They put it on the agenda while people were worried about voting and doing all of that,” Campbell said. “They thought this would be the appropriate time to slide this on the agenda.”

Two outgoing City Council members — Mary Pat Clarke and Ed Reisinger — as well as Trilogy Financial Group, a Minnesota-based financier of waste-to-energy projects, and the Pennsylvania-based Energy Justice Network — sought an injunction Wednesday morning in Baltimore City Circuit Court in an attempt to stop the vote on the contract.

Mike Ewall, executive director of the Energy Justice Network, said that the Wheelabrator matter was added to the Board of Estimates agenda Monday, and courts were closed Tuesday for Election Day, so the parties couldn’t file their motion until Wednesday morning, just before the board’s meeting was to begin.

They argued that Trilogy wasn’t given a chance to bid on the contract, as required by the city charter. Trilogy, which is named in the city’s Recycling and Solid Waste Management Master Plan released in June, specializes in anaerobic digestion technology.

“Not only have Defendants' actions violated the City Charter, they have abused public trust and mocked the principles of fairness and transparency with which the City is required to conduct its business,” the motion for an injunction reads.

The court did not take up the motion before the Wednesday meeting. But the plaintiffs still want a judge to rule on the validity of the city’s procedure and make the city go through competitive bidding.

In a statement, Wheelabrator officials said they were pleased to reach a long-term agreement.

The installation of additional air-quality controls ensures Wheelabrator Baltimore will achieve among the lowest emissions of any waste-to-energy facility in the nation as part of the U.S. EPA’s preferred means of managing unrecycled waste,” the company said.

In other business, the Board of Estimates approved without discussion settlements totaling nearly $2.5 million to resolve lawsuits from a dozen people, stemming from misconduct claims against the police department’s Gun Trace Task Force.

It also voted to end a longstanding “master lease” agreement with Grant Capital Management, which dates to 2003 and let the city tap the firm to provide money upfront for capital projects.

Federal prosecutors said the company’s founder, J.P. Grant, improperly funded former Mayor Catherine Pugh’s campaign. Grant was not charged with a crime.

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