Environmental advocates hoping to shut down Baltimore’s BRESCO trash incinerator, the city’s biggest source of industrial air pollution, ran across information in an online court filing that took them by surprise:
It revealed that the city is negotiating with the incinerator’s operator as part of the legal wrangling over Baltimore’s Clean Air Act and, they fear, is offering to extend the company’s contract, which is set to expire next year.
Community leaders, lawmakers and the advocacy groups say they consider the deal, struck with Wheelabrator Technologies, to be a betrayal and an abandonment of their Zero Waste Plan effort.
“A settlement between Baltimore City and the Wheelabator company – made behind closed doors without transparency, against the will of the people, especially the African American and Hispanic people who are directly affected – is unacceptable,” said Del. Robbyn Lewis, who leads the state’s Zero Waste Task Force and represents the 46th District where the incinerator operates.
“Mayor Young is working with BRESCO incinerator in a closed-door deal to renegotiate their contract before he leaves office in December,” Westport leader Keisha Allen said on Twitter. “If this happens, we’re doomed.”
Acting City Solicitor Dana P. Moore and a spokesman for mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young have not yet responded to a request for comment.
Seeking a Settlement
Mike Ewall, executive director of Energy Justice Network, discovered the talks were taking place when he reviewed the documents on file as part of the city’s appeal of a federal court decision in March striking down the Clean Air Act, which tightens the air emissions limits for the city’s large incinerators.
“Mayor Young is working with BRESCO incinerator in a closed-door deal to renegotiate their contract before he leaves office in December” – Westport leader Keisha Allen.
The judge had sided with Wheelabrator and Curtis Bay Energy, a medical waste incinerator, who argued that the state, not the city, has the power to regulate incinerator emissions.
“The parties have made progress in negotiations and are optimistic about reaching a settlement,” the city said in a July 14 request to the court for extra time to file its brief.
“The case involves long term solid waste management, air quality standards, and financial issues, all of which are technically complex,” an assistant solicitor wrote, adding that “progress has been complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Ewall pointed to scenarios laid out in a Department of Public Works consultants’ report for extending the company’s contract for 5, 10 or even 20 years.
Lead, Mercury and NOx
Incinerator opponents have been pushing the city to embrace a Zero Waste Plan that includes measures like increased recycling and establishing resource recovery centers, but mainly focuses on cutting ties with the BRESCO plant when the contract expires in 2021.
The 34-year-old facility, located near I-95 and Russell Street, is a major source of lead, mercury and NOx (nitrogen oxide) emissions that aggravate many human respiratory conditions and diseases, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer.
Wheelabrator has said it cannot meet the standards imposed under the new clean air ordinance and argues that burning trash at the facility is better for the environment than transporting it to landfills, which produce large amounts of methane, a heat-trapping greenhouse gas.
Scott: “We Must Close BRESCO”
The Young Administration’s handling of the incinerator issue brings it into conflict not just with the community, but with the City Council where support for the Zero Waste Plan has been strong.
“The Council has not been consulted about these secret negotiations with the Wheelabrator BRESCO incinerator,” said Clean Air Act sponsor Ed Reisinger, whose 10th Council District includes BRESCO.
In a statement released by the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, Reisinger accused Young of presiding over “a shadow government.”
According to records on file with the Maryland State Board of Elections, Young received $500 in campaign contributions from Portsmouth, N.H.-based Wheelabrator Technologies in October 2018. Then-mayor Catherine Pugh received $1,000 in contributions from the company in January 2019.
Meanwhile Council President Brandon Scott, who defeated Young in the Democratic mayoral primary in June, is on record opposing the incinerator and supporting Zero Waste.
“We have to go to Zero Waste and have equitable development,” Scott said during the campaign, in a video incinerator opponents were circulating over the weekend. “We must close BRESCO. . . We must break the contract in 2021.”