York Road crematorium opponents: Who we are and why we fight
Officials were wrong to allow the emission of particulates and toxic substances so close to homes – and we’ve come together across one of Baltimore’s starkest racial divides to say so [OP-ED]
Above: Residents of both sides of York Road worked together for months to oppose a human crematorium proposed for their neighborhood (Credit: Martin Courtney)
We write as neighbors from the east and west sides of the glaring racial divide that is York Road in Baltimore City.
For years, the Vaughn Greene Funeral Home located between our two neighborhoods just north of Cold Spring Lane was a community asset.
But with their insistence on adding a human crematorium, this business now poses a threat to our health and well-being.
We made this clear to city officials when the company sought permission to install a crematory – essentially an incinerator – on their property with a 40-foot tall smokestack releasing fine particulates and toxic substances potentially every day.
Vaughn Greene sits less than 200 feet from the nearest home, making this location totally unsuitable for a crematorium.
We presented hours of expert testimony on the effects this operation would have on our health. The Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals (BMZA) was given petitions and over 100 letters of opposition from individuals and from every community association in the area.
And yet the BMZA – legally mandated to protect the health and welfare of surrounding communities – abandoned us when they approved this crematorium.
We were shocked by this decision, and we believe it must be overturned.
Existing Air Quality Issues
Pollutants from human crematoria include small particles that are inhaled deep into the lungs.
One of the alarming pollutants is mercury, a neurotoxin that was estimated to be present in stack exhaust at 85% of the state’s toxic screening threshold.
Still other pollutants are volatile organic compounds, dioxins, furans and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Meanwhile, our neighborhoods have documented elevated levels of asthma and lung and cardiac disease – all conditions that would be exacerbated by exposure to the crematorium exhaust.
Also well documented is our already-high pollution burden, as our lawyer explained to the BMZA.
And consider the additional evidence we now have from the PurpleAir sensor located just two blocks north of the funeral home:
PurpleAir, a private company, makes available, on a click-able map, the crowd-sourced, real-time data it collects from the air quality sensors it sells. EPA also uses the data from the PurpleAir sensors to supplement the data that it publishes on the official EPA website for smoke and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) generated from wildfires.
Data from the network’s Govanstowne sensor at 5104 York Road show that in every year from 2017 through 2019 – and again in 2021 – fine particulate levels violated the U.S. annual standard.
At times, the levels were as much as 119% higher than those recorded at Baltimore’s official air quality monitor, located four miles south of our neighborhoods.
Did the BMZA fully consider the air quality issues in deciding whether a crematorium is appropriate at this site?
No. Instead, they gave extra time and deference to Vaughn Greene’s array of out-of-town paid witnesses, including a Texas consultant whose clients include a long list of polluters.
Black Citizen’s Reaction
Seeing the way the BMZA conducted the hearings, it was clear the process was just a formality, business-as-usual valuing the interests of a large local company over those of common folk.
This was especially true for one of us writing this article, Cindy Camp, who lives just a few hundred feet from the proposed crematorium.
As a Black woman and resident of the Govans community, Cindy notes, I found the BMZA’s decision to be not surprising. People of color continue to be marginalized and treated as if we don’t matter.
Company owner Vaughn Greene repeatedly said he needed this crematorium to serve the needs of the Black community.
But what about the needs of Black residents who live nearby and would like to breathe clean air?
For me, being fully vested in the fight and the outcome, the board’s decision hurt.
Thinking about my grandchildren, some of whom suffer from asthma, I am fully aware that as a society we continue to fail them.
I ask myself: if this decision isn’t reversed, what’s my exit plan? How do I get my family out of this community?
This is why I personally decided to file with the Circuit Court a request for a judicial review of the BMZA decision, together with the Winston-Govans Neighborhood Improvement Association, the Radnor-Winston Association and the York Road Partnership.
We’ll Fight for our Communities
Contesting this ruling has not been easy. We citizens do so as volunteers, squeezing in organizing time between work and family duties, turning to a pro-bono attorney to assist us.
But we cannot sit by and let the BMZA’s failure to fully consider the health and welfare of the citizens of Baltimore stand.
The board ignored the fact that other human crematoria in the region are not as close to homes as the one proposed for York Road.
The only comparable one, on Fulton Avenue in West Baltimore, is near many vacant homes.
Is that the kind of community the city and the BMZA are trying to create?
We will fight to keep our communities from suffering that kind of abandonment.
The only comparable one, on Fulton Avenue, is near many vacant homes. Is that the kind of community the BMZA is trying to create?
We are shocked by Mr. Greene’s insistence on using this particular location for a crematorium.
He has many other options for locations that are not as close to homes. As a successful businessman during a time when cremation is tragically in high demand, why doesn’t he consider a property much further away from homes to provide this service?
He says he wants to offer cremation as a lower cost option compared to burial. But he dismisses the daily costs we will suffer as he brings the deceased from many other locations to be burned in the midst of our communities.
The BMZA has demonstrated to us that they will not protect the public health and welfare of our communities. Our hope is that Baltimore’s Circuit Court will.
• Cindy Camp is an activist, mother, caretaker, grandmother and immediate neighbor of the Vaughn Greene Funeral Home. Lia Purpura is a writer and teacher living in the Radnor Winston neighborhood.