Pollution from the BRESCO incinerator “likely to continue” through mid-2030s, planning report says
Mayor Scott pledged never to extend the current contract with the waste incinerator, but a DPW planning document anticipates the South Baltimore plant operating for many years
Above: “Why is there is no end game for this highly toxic incinerator?” asked Sir James Weaver, environmental justice coordinator for Progressive Maryland. (Mark Reutter)
While Mayor Brandon Scott pledges to end municipal trash burning at the polluting BRESCO incinerator, his administration is also telling state officials why Baltimore’s biggest source of industrial pollution will stay in business for the next decade.
BRESCO will “likely continue to operate at or near its current throughput” beyond 2033 because it will still burn trash from the surrounding counties and from private contracts.
That is the concluding sentence of the 10-Year Solid Waste Management Plan, a 192-page report that was previewed at a public meeting on Monday. The plan is set to be submitted to the Maryland Department of the Environment next month.
At Monday’s meeting, held far from the incinerator at the Arlington Elementary School in northwest Baltimore, several activists tried to address the elephant in the room.
“Why is there no end game for this highly toxic incinerator?” asked Sir James Weaver, environmental justice coordinator for Progressive Maryland. “This is appalling. The incinerator is many times as dirty as coal. It has to go.”
Another speaker, Mikel Rashid, said he was recently diagnosed with asthma.
“I’ve been living in Cherry Hill for the last four years, and the doctor says the only thing he can think of is the incinerator. Why don’t we have a concrete plan to get us off of Wheelabrator? I’m agitated, and so is the community.”
Operated by Wheelabrator Technologies Inc. – rebranded last year as WIN Waste Innovations – the facility won a new 10-year contract in 2021 despite intense opposition from environmental groups and community members.
Currently, the waste-to-energy facility discharges 653,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year as it turns garbage from the city, Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties, and private haulers into ash.
Its age – opened in 1985 – and physical makeup – three mass-burning, water wall furnaces heated up to 2800° Fahrenheit – limit the amount of pollution-control equipment that can be installed.
Having survived multiple lawsuits, a short-lived city ordinance and other efforts to shut it down, WIN Waste is making upgrades to extend its service life, another indication it plans to remain in business.
Releasing up to four times more greenhouse gases than coal-fired power plants, the facility also emits nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, lead, mercury and other pollutants that can cause asthma, respiratory disease and other human health problems.
For the 150,000 people living within four miles of the incinerator, its continued operation will mean another decade of exposure to hazardous chemicals.
Scott’s BRESCO Record
The Scott administration’s contradictory statements on the incinerator come at the midpoint of a term that began, for opponents, on a sour note.
As City Council president, Scott had supported the 2019 Baltimore Clean Air Act, which was designed to force the plant to reduce pollution or close.
(The law was struck down by U.S. District Court judge George L. Russell III, who said the ordinance undermined state and federal regulation.)
Then, while running for mayor in 2020, Scott promised to stop sending city garbage to the incinerator – only to turn around and support the extension of the contract after he won the Democratic Party primary.
Explaining his reasoning, Scott told The Brew that extending the contract would give the city leverage over emissions from other customers using the plant.
“We’re going to work to not burn as much at the incinerator as possible,” he said. “And I will work my butt off to make sure that this is the last time we ever give them a new contract.”
Scott subsequently signed a 10-year extension with Wheelabrator to burn municipal trash, while vowing in his December 2021 Action Plan to “reduce chronic health disparities across racial and ethics groups by decommissioning the use of waste incineration within the next decade.”
Resigned to the Status Quo
The text of the 10-Year Plan, prepared by the Department of Public Works and Geosyntec Consultants, lays out reasoning similar to Scott’s.
Baltimore City may own the 15 acres of ground on which the plant operates, but little can be done by city government to alter the future of trash burning there, the plan says, because “a large portion of waste disposed at WIN Waste is generated in the private sector or outside the city.”
The report ends with this conclusion: “Until there is universal, coordinated adoption of waste diversion practices across public and private sectors, it is likely that the facility will continue to operate at or near its current throughput.”
At the same time, Scott’s Action Plan says that reducing the chronic health disparities between racial and ethnic groups are his No. 1 health goal.
Pollution from BRESCO most directly affects the nearby Black neighborhoods of Westport, Mount Winans, Cherry Hill and Lakeland. More generally, plant operations impact Baltimore’s notoriously high asthma rate and poor air quality (here and here).
The gap between the mayor’s promises and DPW’s apparent lack of interest in finding ways to scale down BRESCO has alarmed environmental and community leaders.
According to Greg Sawtell, who works with the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, the 10-year plan says all the right things about diverting and reducing waste, increasing recycling, deconstructing vacant houses and scaling up composting.
“The elements needed to close BRESCO are in the plan,” he said.
“But then the city goes and says, ‘Oh, well, unless there’s universal coordination, we’re keeping the status quo.’ It’s the government’s job to coordinate and negotiate and allocate funds to get the job done.”
In the meantime, the city’s recycling program has stalled, undercutting the report’s goal of diverting 113,400 tons of residential single-stream collectibles (paper, plastics, metals) and 137,000 tons of commercial recyclables a year by 2034.
Ten years ago, Baltimore had a 15% recycling rate. In 2021, the rate was 18% after falling from a high of 20% in 2018 and a low of 11.5% during the pandemic.
Weekly curbside recycling, which ended during the pandemic, will not be reestablished until early 2024, the Scott administration says, blaming labor shortages spawned by the pandemic.
“This plan needs to make significant investments in our DPW employees and our front-line workers,” Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer said at the Monday meeting.
“Any money geared toward cleaning should be directed toward that and not diverted anywhere else,” he added, alluding to the mayor’s recent allocation of $14.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to underwrite community cleanups that will employ local residents at $15 an hour.
Others called the current system of pickups once every two weeks a failure, leading to paper and plastic blowing down streets and across yards when residents forget what week the pickups are scheduled.
“I sometimes measure how long it is between cleanups in my neighborhood. Nowadays, it’s three months, four months,” said a woman at the meeting, referring to trash removal along the Cross Country Blvd. greenway. “It’s a beautiful area, and it should be maintained.”
Street sweeping also should return to minority neighborhoods, said Pastor Troy Randall, chairman of the Pimlico Community Compact Committee.
“It’s been reinstated in places like Roland Park, but it has completely ceased in Park Heights,” he charged. “We ask you, bring it back to the 21215 zip code.”
At the start of the meeting, DPW officials announced that they would record – but not respond to – audience remarks or answer questions.