Some Baltimore City Council members are seeking to block the city’s law department from reaching any deal to renew a contract with the towering waste incinerator that pumps smoke into the city’s sky.
Democratic City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke introduced a bill Monday night that would bar Baltimore from entering into contracts that authorize the use of trash incinerators or other waste-to-fuel plants.
It’s an attempt to stymie negotiations between the city’s lawyers and Wheelabrator Technologies, whose Southwest Baltimore facility processes household trash and produces steam and energy.
Last year, the City Council passed the Baltimore Clean Air Act to force the city’s private waste incinerators to dramatically reduce their output of pollutants. But the companies operating two incinerators in Baltimore sued, and a federal judge in March ruled in their favor: The city’s law, the judge found, is invalid as it “second-guesses” a complex system of state and federal environmental regulations.
The city filed a request for the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider that decision.
Since then, the parties have been in settlement negotiations. City Solicitor Dana Moore confirmed Monday that discussions are ongoing.
Part of the negotiations revolve around whether and how to renew Wheelabrator’s contract, which is to expire at the end of 2021. That such a proposal is on the table has infuriated environmental advocates and some City Council members. Many spent years fighting to close the plant which, with its smokestack next to Interstate 95, has produced pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, lead and mercury for decades.
They say the facility is harming the community’s health, and the city should direct resources to carrying out a “Zero Waste Plan” that calls for expanded recycling and composting, among other initiatives.
“We’ve spent many years now building the case, investing in the case, thinking through the case, for zero waste here in Baltimore City,” Clarke said. “Right now, however, while we should be in court appealing the repeal of the Clean Air Act, a timeout has been called.”
In a statement, Wheelabrator said it had not had an opportunity to review the proposed legislation and couldn’t comment on the specifics of Clarke’s bill.
"However, it is striking that an elected city official would seek to ban operations recommended by Baltimore’s own 10-year waste management plan,” the company said.
The city’s Clean Air Act, which was set to take effect in 2022, would have forced incinerators operating in the city to drastically reduce their output of pollutants, and to measure those emissions in real time.
When the law passed, Wheelabrator officials said it would be impossible to retrofit the plant to meet the new standards by that time. Part of the settlement discussions center on determining whether Wheelabrator can make changes to its facility to ensure lower emissions levels.
Moore said the city has not given up on its case; the law department is preparing both for a settlement and a protracted legal fight.
It also is working with city agencies to develop plans for what to do with trash should the incinerator’s contract run out.
Wheelabrator processes up to 2,250 tons of trash every day. Counties, including Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard, rely on the incinerator, too. Meanwhile, the city-owned Quarantine Road landfill is nearing capacity.
Advocates say that if the city focuses on reducing waste — by banning single-use plastics, providing large recycling bins to all households and instituting curbside composting collection — it can slow the rate by which it’s stuffing the landfill.
Moore said she still must review the legislation introduced by Clarke, which is dubbed the “Ban the Burn at Every Turn Act.”
During a lunch meeting Monday, Clarke urged fellow council members to attach their names to the legislation and fight any contract renewal. She said there are ways for the city to handle its trash without incinerator pollution.
“This is a decisive moment, really, in which we either win or lose what we’ve invested in for years," Clarke said. "We can do this in 2021 — there are ways to do it. If we don’t do it, we will lose years and years to a half-baked fix-up which still pollutes and which has no end in sight.”
Democratic City Council President Brandon Scott said during the mayoral primary campaign this spring that he’s committed to ending the Wheelabrator contract in 2021.
A spokesman for Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, a Democrat who will leave office in December, did not respond Monday to a request for comment on the legislation.
The city is scheduled to submit a brief to the court next month, but Moore said that won’t necessarily mark the end of negotiations.
“We will continue to negotiate," she said, “until there is a final decision on the issue.”