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Environmentby Fern Shen11:13 amAug 30, 20120

Battle over South Baltimore trash incinerator re-igniting

At hearing tonight, environmentalists will challenge Energy Answers’ request for more time to build the plant

Above: The now shuttered FMC chemical plant in Fairfield, where a New York-based company wants to build an incinerator.

It may seem like a long way from Dan Lemkin’s home in lower Roland Park to the former chemical factory in Curtis Bay where a waste-to-energy incinerator is proposed.

But Lemkin’s pretty sure the toxic pollutants that would be released by the 160-megawatt Energy Answers plant would have no problem traveling that cross-town 11-mile distance.

“It’s mind-boggling that they would put something like this right in a populated area,” said Lemkin, an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “It starts spewing ash, toxics, particulates, heavy metals, then forget it – five or 10 miles is like nothing.”

That’s why Lemkin and several of his Alonsoville neighbors – as well as national environmental groups that have been battling the project for years – plan to show up at the Curtis Bay Recreation Center tonight.

The Maryland Public Service Commission is holding a public hearing there (at 7 p.m. at 1620 Filbert St.) on the so-called Fairfield Renewable Energy Project proposed by New York-based Energy Answers. The company is asking the PSC for more time to build the $1 billion facility.

Company Missed Deadline

Energy Answers’ permit, approved by the PSC in 2010, required them to start work on the project on Feb. 5, but no construction has taken place.

Company officials say they haven’t been able to find enough buyers for the power or sellers of the necessary annual 4,000 tons of waste needed for fuel – and that requests for a waiver in such situations are not unusual. They also say they need more time to finish a study showing the plant would not violate current pollution control laws.

Environmentalists say the request is an attempt to avoid having to reapply for state permits and face stricter emission limits put in place since then. Seeing an opening, the environmental groups have been urging the PSC to deny Energy Answers Baltimore’s request.

“The premise of the hearing is very broad – they’re taking public comment on all statutory issues including air quality,” said Andrew Galli, Maryland program coordinator for Clean Water Action.

“We think [the incinerator’s] impact on Baltimore’s air would be terrible,” Galli said. “At 4,000 tons a day this would be the largest incinerator in the U.S. and they’re building it near a community, including two schools.”

Door-to-Door Campaign

Along with Clean Water Action, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and the Environmental Integrity Project have been waging a campaign to oppose the Fairfield incinerator. Along with filings to the PSC and online petitions, they have been mailing postcards and going door-to-door across the city and in northern Anne Arundel County.

The state’s permit allows it to burn organic and inorganic materials, such as urban wood waste, auto shredder residue, and chipped scrap tires along with municipal solid waste.

Under the permit, the incinerator can release hundreds of tons of sulfuric acid, soot, mercury and lead, at levels which environmentalists say would endanger the health of city residents, especially those  living in Curtis Bay.

They described their concerns about pollution from the incinerator in a letter to Baltimore City School CEO Andres Alonso, in the wake of a contract signed last year by several city government agencies and  neighboring county governments to buy power from it. (City Schools is among those entities.)

The opponents note in their letter that the perimeter of the property (1701 East Patapsco Ave.) is within one mile of two public schools, Curtis Bay Elementary School and Benjamin Franklin Middle School.

In an October letter, Alonso replied that state officials assured him the project “has been tested and approved by the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Public Service Commission.”

“The project is one of many throughout the state in pursuit of innovative, efficient, and environmental ways to generate resources to produce electricity,” Alonso wrote.

The state’s 2010 approval of the project exempts it from a state law that prohibits the construction of a municipal solid waste incinerator within one mile of any public or private elementary or secondary school.

Lemkin says he believes state officials are ignoring the human and financial impact of the respiratory illness such an incinerator would exacerbate.

“I’m an ER doc. We just worked on a case that walked in the door of respiratory failure as the result of asthma. We see it all the time,” Lemkin said, estimating the billing on the emergency room visit at $1,500. “Do they ever look at the actual cost of these things to society?”

High-Stakes, Big Dollars

Labor groups, a Curtis bay area community group and state, city and federal agencies support the project.

State lawmakers representing the area and the head of the Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Coalition, an area community group, have said the project would bring needed jobs.

Guests at an October 2010 kick-off ceremony included Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, U.S. Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, representatives from the EPA and other groups.

Last year, O’Malley and state legislators handed Energy Answers more support in the form of a bill that classified waste-to-energy incinerators as a “Tier 1” renewable source of energy  – eligible, like wind turbines and solar panels, for lucrative energy credits.

Bill supporters said trash-to-energy power plants can be run clean and would help the environment by diverting and processing material that would otherwise clog landfills. Environmentalists said the process is a net loss for the environment in the form of air and water pollution.

The company, meanwhile, has been generous in its contributions to the campaign funds of Maryland politicians, according to documents on file with the state.

On Oct. 27, 2010, O’Malley, who signed the energy credit bill into law, received $4,000 from Energy Answers Baltimore LLC and $4,000 from the company’s CEO Patrick F. Mahoney. His campaign received another $1,000 from Mahoney on January 10, 2011.

The campaign of Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown received $4,000 from the company on October 27, 2010 and $4,000 on that date from Mahoney.

Mahoney gave Rawling-Blake’s campaign $1,000 on January 11, 2011 and another $500 in April of that year.

Another contribution was made to the Democratic Governors Association. During the first six months after O’Malley took the helm of the DGA in 2010, Energy Answers International gave the governors association a total of $100,000.

O’Malley said the contribution had no effect on his decision regarding the bill.

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