Protesters temporarily shut down Baltimore’s BRESCO trash incinerator, preventing garbage trucks from going in and out of a facility they say endangers the public’s health and must be permanently closed.
About 40 people stood in the entrance road to the incinerator on Wednesday, denouncing Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young for negotiations with its operator that they fear are leading towards an extension of the city’s contract to send refuse to the 34-year-old plant.
Shashawnda Campbell, of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, helped lead the shutdown – incinerator opponents’ boldest protest action to date.
“Today we take a stand because this is shady that [Young] would go behind the backs of all of the City Council, including members who have stood behind us and tried to advance Zero Waste,” Campbell told The Brew.
“If the city has another contract with BRESCO, it will be very hard to give them money, while also putting money in the budget for the Zero Waste plan itself to create that infrastructure,” she said.
Protesters held up signs that read “Clean air is a human right,” “BRESCO kills” and another that called on Acting City Solicitor Dana P. Moore to “Defend the Clean Air Act and Close BRESCO.”
At one point, a protester instructed the crowd to chant, “When I say backstabber, you say Young!”
Asked whether the city is considering renewing its contract with the South Baltimore facility, Young’s spokesman, Lester Davis, declined say, referring a reporter to the law department. He adding that “the mayor shares the advocates’ goal of a healthier Baltimore.”
Moore has acknowledged that the city could potentially offer to renew its contract with Wheelabrator Technologies, the New Hampshire-based company that operates the facility.
Tensions were high at several points during Wednesday’s protest, with truck drivers honking their horns, increasingly frustrated by not being let into or out of the plant’s driveway off Annapolis Road.
Several drivers got out to say they disagreed with the protest and that switching to landfills to deal with city trash would be similarly harmful.
“You have two choices with tons and tons of waste: either you’re going to burn it, or bury it. Burning it creates the energy that energizes the homes in the city,” said Devon, a 47-year-old commercial waste hauler who declined to give his last name.
“If you bury it, you’ve got gases that come out of the ground eventually,” he said. “With the things that aren’t recyclable or compostable, what are you going to do with it?”
Roughly 20 people wearing Wheelabrator shirts held signs opposing a shutdown of the facility but declined to talk to a reporter. Manager Austin Pritchard said he sympathizes with the zero waste goal but believes the city is far from achieving it.
“The reality is we process 2,250 tons of trash per day, 350 trucks. Every year, 700,000 tons of trash,” he said. “We want to be part of the solution, but in the meantime how do we get there?”
Cost of Continuing
With the BRESCO contract set to expire in late 2021, the city enacted the Baltimore Clean Air Act last year, setting emission standards that Wheelabrator says would cost $9o million to achieve and force them to shut down.
Now the city is considering extending the contract five to 20 more years, according to Mike Ewall, director of the Energy Justice Network. Ewall helped draft the city’s Clean Air Act, currently on hold pending a legal challenge by Wheelabrator and other plaintiffs.
He warned Wednesday that the settlement would also include a “put-or-pay” clause that would require the city to send a certain amount of trash there moving forward, as other jurisdictions have agreed to.
“If they sign a contract, I guarantee there’s a certain amount of waste they’re locking in,” he told The Brew.
“If the city gets serious about zero waste, they’re going to get penalized, just like Wheelabrator is suing Baltimore County for $32 million because they didn’t give them enough waste.”
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke also predicted extending the contract would hurt the city financially because the operators would pass along to taxpayers the cost of trying to make the aging incinerator meet emissions standards.
“We refuse to accept the price which BRESCO will require and can never afford to upgrade its plant,” she said, in an online news conference. “They’ll promise but never do.”
But the protesters’ fundamental objection to BRESCO centered on its impact on residents health. The air pollution from trash-burning, they argued, is far worse than the environmental impact of disposing of trash in landfills.
The Department of Public Works is pushing to expand the capacity of the Quarantine Road Landfill in Hawkins Point, which is due to run out of space in 2028.
Community leaders have galvanized widespread support for a Zero Waste Plan that transitions the city towards more a system of recycling, composting and other strategies to eliminate waste and create jobs.
“People say you know you’re in Curtis Bay when the smell hits you in the face” – Meleny Thomas.
For some protesters – who live in the Baltimore neighborhoods that have long complained of the poor air quality from Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co (known locally as BRESCO) – the issue is especially personal.
“This is just bad. A backdoor deal that’s a betrayal of us who have worked and labored for clean air,” said United Workers organizer Meleny Thomas, a Curtis Bay resident.
Living near a medical waste incinerator and landfill, as well as BRESCO, she said, serves as a constant reminder that “the city needs alternatives.”
“People say you know you’re in Curtis Bay when the smell hits you in the face,” she said.