Baltimore Residents Rally to Demand Cleaner Air and a Transition to Zero Waste
On September 21st, a group of Baltimore residents, local elected officials, and environmental advocates rallied in a strong showing of support for clean air and a just transition to zero waste in Baltimore before a hearing at the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE).
During the rally in Carroll Park, community leaders living near the incinerator joined by city councilmembers and technical experts shared new information about BRESCO’s emissions and efforts underway to lead Baltimore to a just transition away from incineration towards zero waste.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke of Baltimore’s 14th district said, “Incineration has outlived its usefulness. Time now for drastic new systems to handle our trash while restoring good health to our neighborhoods, especially the children.”
“We appreciate that MDE is proposing to reduce NOx pollution from the BRESCO incinerator by about 20%,” said Leah Kelly, attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project. “However, this does not make a big enough dent in the very high NOx emissions from the incinerator, which are greater than those emitted by each of Maryland’s coal plants per unit of energy generated. Wheelabrator needs to invest some of the subsidies it receives as a purportedly ‘green’ energy source in serious pollution control upgrades for this aging and inefficient trash incinerator.”
After the rally, MDE held a hearing on a proposed regulation to reduce the amount of nitrogen oxides (NOx) pollution that the Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co. (BRESCO) trash incinerator in South Baltimore is allowed to emit by 200 tons per year (almost a 20 percent reduction). This is a relatively strong NOx limit when compared to those set by other states for older incinerators like BRESCO in areas like Baltimore that exceed federal air quality standards for smog (ground level ozone). What Maryland is proposing is a step forward – but not nearly enough, considering the already very high levels of asthma and air pollution in Baltimore and the environmental injustice created by incineration. "While residents are doing everything we can to improve the quality of the air we breathe, the BRESCO trash burning incinerator continues to burn jobs, money and precious natural resources.” Destiny Watford of Curtis Bay said. “Baltimore can do better than BRESCO and it's time we move forward with a Zero Waste vision that puts our health, economy, and environment first."
As a part of the proposed regulation, MDE has also charted a path toward setting even stricter emissions limits in 2020. Councilman Edward Reisinger of Baltimore’s 10th district, home of the incinerator, said, “BRESCO needs to update their facility or close!” Advocates told MDE that it must go much farther to protect public health during this process, particularly given the amount of money the facility receives from the state. According to the Baltimore Sun, Wheelabrator has been awarded approximately $10 million over the past six years for being a so-called "renewable" source of energy in Maryland. However, the pollution limits in MDE’s rule require the company to spend a mere fraction of this - $225,000 to $250,000 a year - to clean up the NOx emitted from the incinerator’s smokestack.
And ultimately, even with the possibility of stronger pollution limits in the future, burning trash will remain an inherently polluting and unsustainable method of reducing waste volume and producing energy. "For too long incinerators have been pumping carbon pollution into our atmosphere and pollution into the lungs of the most vulnerable," said Heather Moyer, board member of Interfaith Power & Light, DC MD & NoVA. "Thousands of faithful Marylanders in hundreds of congregations across the state are committed to clean energy and clean air. A healthy Maryland for all of God’s people and all creation is possible." In 2015, the BRESCO incinerator emitted roughly double the amount of greenhouse gases per unit of energy produced by each of the 6 largest coal plants in Maryland. Wheelabrator currently receives unearned subsidies for this energy.
Carmera Thomas, who coordinates programs in Baltimore for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said, “The state’s move to reduce air pollutants at this incinerator should be a first step. We urge state officials to require further reductions and ensure the facility uses the technology it has in place to limit the pollution it emits. We also encourage the city to pursue a long-term zero waste strategy that moves away from burning the city’s trash.”
The BRESCO incinerator is an aging, outdated facility that burns trash from Baltimore City and Baltimore County. Even though the industry touts the facility as “green energy,” BRESCO emits more NOx air pollution per unit of energy than any power plant in Maryland. NOx is the primary pollutant that contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone, or smog, and the Baltimore area has long been classified as the U.S. EPA as failing to meet federal ozone standards. NOx also contributes to the formation of fine particles, a pollutant that has been associated in studies with premature death from heart and lung disease. Baltimore City has substantially higher rates of asthma hospitalizations and emergency room visits due to asthma than the rest of the State of Maryland. In 2016 BRESCO emitted over twice as much NOx as Maryland’s other trash-burning incinerator in Montgomery County.
The proposed regulation will reduce BRESCO’s NOx emissions by about 20 percent and also create a pathway for much steeper emissions reductions in the future. Under MDE’s proposed regulation, the Wheelabrator Baltimore incinerator must meet a NOx limit of 150 ppm on a 24-hour average starting on May 1, 2019 and a NOx limit of 145 ppm on a 30-day average starting on May 1, 2020. MDE projects that these new limits will reduce the incinerator’s NOx emissions by 200 tons per year, meaning that, after the limits go into effect, the Wheelabrator Baltimore incinerator will likely continue to emit around 900 tons per year of NOx. (which is still over twice as much as the 418 tons of NOx emitted in 2016 by the incinerator in Montgomery County).
In addition, the proposed regulation requires that Wheelabrator must submit an analysis by January 1, 2020 of achieving additional NOx reductions at the BRESCO incinerator, including the potential to install additional pollution control technology.
Wheelabrator Baltimore would also be required to propose new NOx pollution limits to MDE by January 1, 2020 for the Baltimore incinerator based on the results of the feasibility analysis. After Wheelabrator completes the study, MDE says it will write stricter regulations in response to the company’s findings.
On September 17, 2018, the Baltimore City Council passed a resolution calling on MDE to require Wheelabrator to conduct a rigorous analysis relating to the installation of new pollution control technology for NOx at the Wheelabrator Baltimore incinerator. The resolution also called upon MDE to begin a second rulemaking process and set much stronger NOx pollution limits upon receipt of the analysis from Wheelabrator.