By: Humza Yaqoob, Columnist
In March 2019, former Mayor of Baltimore Catherine Pugh signed the Baltimore Clean Air Act which would tighten toxic emissions standards on the city’s two trash incinerators after it was passed unanimously by the City Council in February. Wheelabrator Baltimore, which wields the distinctive white “Baltimore” smokestack which can be seen from I-95 or the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, is the city’s main incinerator and the 10th biggest in the country.
Curtis Bay Energy operates the largest medical waste incinerator in the country. Under the new bill, these two facilities would have until Jan. 1, 2022 to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions to less than a third of current levels.
In addition to emitting nitrogen oxides, the Wheelabrator incinerator is a source of lead, mercury, hydrochloric acid, and formaldehyde pollution. In support of the Clean Air Act, City Council members and city residents have pointed out the link between Baltimore’s industrial pollution and high levels of asthma and other respiratory diseases. Despite the bill’s widespread approval in city government, it continues to face challenges to its implementation.
Wheelabrator Baltimore hasn’t been letting the new bill go forward without a fight — the company’s vice president of environment, health, and safety has stated that the facility cannot be retrofitted and this bill would result in the closure of the incinerator and the loss of jobs for their 65 full-time employees.
The environmental advocacy movement Clean Air Baltimore, supported by the Energy Justice Network, holds that the incinerator’s closure is a much needed step for the city’s public health. In an effort to sway the public, Wheelabrator sent out flyers to residents expressing opposition to the Clean Air Act, making a number of dubious claims. They boasted that the EPA prefers waste incinerators to landfills, and stressed that the city doesn’t have an alternative for waste disposal without the incinerator.
Clean Air Baltimore has rebutted these claims: the EPA’s own databases, they point out, demonstrate that the Wheelabrator is responsible for 427 times as much air pollution as the city’s Quarantine Road Landfill (QRL), where much of Baltimore’s trash and ash from the incinerator are dumped. EPA data further reports that the incinerator emits 16.6 times as much pollution contributing to global warming when compared to the QRL.
As for what will happen to Baltimore City’s trash with the Wheelabrator gone, Clean Air Baltimore has outlined some of the steps that can be taken with optimism. Only 53.6% of the facility’s waste is from Baltimore City as of 2017 — most of the rest is from Baltimore County. Therefore, the QRL has been filling up with ash from imported waste. The county has been taking back some of their ash for their own landfill since 2014, and if they take more of their own share, and the city continues to take measures to reduce single-use waste and to expand the QRL, enough room could be made to make up for the lack of an incinerator.
For now, the city is embroiled in a federal lawsuit launched by Wheelabrator and trade associates which alleges that the local Clean Air Act is illegal. As of January 2020, the city is holding off on implementation until a federal judge rules on the lawsuit. In the city’s favor, the federal Clean Air Act and the Maryland State Implementation Plan do not restrict political subdivisions from adopting their own regulations, and the Baltimore Law Department finds the bill to be supported by the City Charter. Despite this setback, it is encouraging to see that Baltimore could be on the verge of making major changes to tackle the city’s pollution problems.