Home | BaltimoreBrew.com
Neighborhoodsby Fern Shen11:04 amFeb 29, 20240

With cremation growing in popularity, a setback bill is debated in Annapolis

Baltimore residents and lawmakers say the Maryland Department of the Environment is not doing enough to protect citizens from the impacts of human remains being incinerated near homes and schools

Above: A resident near Vaughn Greene Funeral Service’s York Road location with a lawn sign in opposition to the proposed crematorium there. (Fern Shen)

Residents, both urban and suburban, and elected officials, both Democrat and Republican, turned out in Annapolis to support a bill to prevent human crematories from locating within 1,000 feet of homes or schools in parts of Maryland.

“I’m very concerned and worried about the pollution of the proposed crematorium,” said Michael Thomas, whose family, including four children, live in Honeygo Ridge in Baltimore County, adjacent to a proposed crematory on Philadelphia Road. “I do not want to live next to a crematorium.”

Other bill supporters included residents of Baltimore’s Govans neighborhood, who have been fighting a proposed crematorium that would be about 200 feet from the nearest house.

Speaking against the measure were representatives of funeral homes and mortuaries across the state.

Significantly, the most influential foe of the bill – the Maryland Department of the Environment – did not attend the committee hearing on Tuesday.

SB-893 “would make it extremely difficult to locate a crematory in the named areas,” MDE stated in a written filing.

Following “a science-based review process when evaluating crematory permits,” the agency said it can adequately determine air quality and evaluate public health impacts.

That position, mirroring the industry’s, infuriates Lisa Polyak, the science advisor for the group fighting Vaughn Greene Funeral Service’s plan to add a crematorium to its 4905 York Road location in Baltimore.

“Since when is it MDE’s mission to advocate for the business community?” Polyak told The Brew following her testimony at the hearing.

“According to the MDE website, their mission is ‘to protect and restore the environment for the health and well-being of all Marylanders.’”

“Is this Larry Hogan’s MDE? Or Governor Moore’s MDE?” Polyak continued.

“Is this Larry Hogan’s MDE? Or Governor Moore’s MDE?”  – Lisa Polyak, York Road Partnership.

She and other supporters of the 1,000-foot-buffer bill regard the state’s regulation of crematoriums as negligible.

“It is clear to me that sufficient statewide standards do not exist for these facilities,” Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, a Republican, said in a statement read at the hearing, noting that the County Council passed a resolution last year supporting distance standards.

Baltimore City Councilman Mark Conway also urged approval of the bill, calling current federal and state standards for health-harming particulate emissions “outdated.”

“These folks cannot move their homes,” said Conway, a Democrat whose district, where the Govans crematorium is proposed, “has the second highest asthma rate in the area.”

A large crowd, including parents and seniors, turns out for a meeting with state officials on Vaughn Greene Funeral Home's proposed crematorium in Govans. (Peder Schaefer)

A crowd that included parents and seniors at a December meeting with MDE about Vaughn Greene Funeral Service’s proposed crematorium in Govans. (Peder Schaefer)

Growing Popularity

The debate before the Senate Education, Energy and the Environment Committee is playing out across the country as cremation becomes increasingly popular.

According to the Cremation Association of North America (CANA), 56% of Americans who died in 2020 were cremated.

That’s more than twice the rate of two decades ago. Cremation is now the choice of about 60% of Maryland residents, industry leaders say.

Restrictions on the proximity of crematoriums to residential properties have been imposed in a number of states, including Connecticut, Georgia, Colorado and New Jersey, according to Baltimore Senator Mary Washington, co-sponsor of the bill with Senator Sarah K. Elfreth, of Anne Arundel County.

“Nevada has a limit of 1,500 feet when located in an urban area,” Washington told fellow senators at the hearing. “This bill is asking for 1,000.”

The site of a proposed crematorium in Baltimore County that has stirred controversy. (WJZ)

The site of a proposed crematorium in Baltimore County that has stirred controversy. (WJZ)

She ran through the list of substances that could potentially be in a human body being incinerated:

“Persistent organic pollutants, synthetic pesticides, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, illicit drugs, metal byproducts from implants, limb replacements, pacemakers,” she said. “There is also a concern regarding the vaporization of plastics from dental fillings.”

The potentially harmful substances in cremation emissions, she said, include “particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen chloride, sulfur dioxide, dioxins, furans, formaldehyde and mercury.”

The bill would apply only to applications for new air-quality permits for cremators in Maryland’s more densely settled areas – Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, Baltimore city, and Baltimore, Harford, Howard and Carroll counties.

In those areas, cremators would not be allowed within 1,000 feet of a health care facility, extended care facility or childcare center, a family childcare center, a primary, elementary or secondary school or a residential property.

“We have scientific and anecdotal evidence that crematories emit toxic pollutants that damage the environment and the people who live near them,” Washington said, noting that the bill was amended to exempt current crematories.

Costly for Funeral Homes

Speakers against the bill included a representative of the Maryland State Funeral Directors Association, James J. Doyle III, who said the bill would limit supply and raise the cost of cremation.

“There are going to be additional storage charges that are going to occur for a fairly lengthy period of time because of the shortage of facilities,” Doyle said. “Something that is relatively inexpensive now is going to become much more expensive.”

Cecil County funeral home owner, Bob Foard, explained why. Before he installed a cremator at his Rising Sun location, he would “transfer the loved one’s body to a crematorium at an industrial park in another state.”

“Pennsylvania is where we went,” he said. “And then we would go back and pick up the cremated remains.”

“Something that is relatively inexpensive now is going to become much more expensive”  – James Doyle, Maryland State Funeral Directors Association.

According to Doyle, “extensive regulation” ensures that the emissions from crematories are safe.

“MDE determines the height of stacks, the number of bodies that can be cremated within a certain period of time,” he testified, noting that the agency requires annual emissions information before renewing permits.

Polyak pointed out that this is self-reported information on which estimates are based, rather than measurements of the actual amount of pollutants being emitted.

“Neither the crematory owners nor MDE has any idea what is actually coming out of the stack,” said Polyak, who has worked for the Army Medical Command and the Defense Health Agency evaluating environmental exposures of U.S. service members.

In its statement, MDE said it evaluates health impacts “using tools that consider conservative emissions estimates, the distance between emissions and the property line” and other factors.

“Neither the crematory owners nor MDE has any idea what is actually coming out of the stack”  – Lisa Polyak.

Washington said she has asked how the regulators know that “the machines are operating correctly” and if “the owners abide by the conditions of their permits?”

“MDE staff claim that the state doesn’t fund inspectors to enforce the permit applications,” she testified.

“In their 2022 report, out of all of the current air quality permits issued from 2017 to 2022, they have only gone back and reviewed 7% of them.”

Next Steps

From the testimony, it was unclear whether the bill, if approved, would apply to crematorium applications currently pending with MDE, such as the one submitted by Vaughn Greene Funeral Services.

After losing their appeal of the city’s zoning approval for the project, residents filed an Appellate Court appeal.

Oral arguments are scheduled next week.

Meanwhile, House Bill 1374, the companion bill to Senate 893, is scheduled  to be heard by the Environment and Transportation Committee on March 6.

Most Popular