Baltimore Continues Incinerating Trash, Despite Opposition from its New Mayor and City Council

One environmental activist who’s been battling incinerators in the city for a decade has a new strategy: “starving the beast” through recycling and composting.

The smokestack of the Wheelabrator Incinerator is seen near Interstate 95 in Baltimore, Maryland, March 09, 2019. Credit: Eva Claire Hambach/AFP via Getty Images

The smokestack of the Wheelabrator Incinerator is seen near Interstate 95 in Baltimore, Maryland, March 09, 2019. Credit: Eva Claire Hambach/AFP via Getty Images

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Shashawnda Campbell began her three-minute testimony in front of the Maryland General Assembly rocking and swaying in her chair, seemingly nervous. Looking down at her camera, she spoke at a faster clip than the other witnesses, leaving 25 seconds spare.

“This incinerator,” she said of Wheelabrator Baltimore, a waste-to-energy facility that is the city’s single largest standing source of air pollution, “… is not a system that we, in any way, should be indulging and giving subsidies because it does not deserve it.” 

In Maryland, energy generated from waste incineration is classified as a “Tier-1” renewable source, which means it earns clean energy credits. Campbell, 24, was speaking in support of HB0332, a bill that would remove incineration from the state’s renewable energy portfolio altogether.

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Campbell has battled trash-to-energy incinerators in Baltimore since she was in high school. Her Feb. 4 testimony came several months after the city’s Board of Estimates extended the contract for the Wheelabrator incinerator for another 10 years.

Last year, with a City Council unanimously in favor of more stringent air pollution standards, and an incoming mayor opposed to a contract extension, the odds seemed much more favorable for environmental activists like Campbell.  

But on the day after the 2020 Presidential Election, the Baltimore Board of Estimates voted 3 to 2 to extend the contract of Wheelabrator Baltimore—for another 10 years, twice as long as the company had lobbied for. Campbell is now left working for ways to “starve the beast” of trash through more vigorous recycling and composting. 

The outgoing mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who joined the city’s acting solicitor and acting public works chief in voting for the $106 million agreement, was criticized for lacking transparency and undue expediency. Wheelabrator’s renegotiations with the city took place behind closed doors, and the estimates board, which is responsible for purchasing and awarding contracts, added the vote to its agenda only two days prior.

This came as a shock to local politicians and activists who were promised a City Council briefing and a public hearing before the vote, neither of which occurred. There was also no effort by officials to solicit competing bids for the city’s solid waste disposal system.

“It was just offensive on a scale that was hard to overestimate,” said Greg Sawtell of South Baltimore Community Land Trust, an organization that advocates for zero waste.

After the contract was extended, the National Waste & Recycling Association, the Washington-based trade group for waste and recycling companies in all 50 states, called the vote “a win for both the community and the city.”

“Wheelabrator provides $7 million to the city in host fees and important jobs,” the association said. “Furthermore, with the investments in emission control technology, Wheelabrator will have some of the lowest emissions of any waste-to-energy facility in the country.”

The existence of the renegotiations between Wheelabrator and Baltimore became public last July through court filings related to a prior lawsuit.

In 2019, the City Council unanimously approved the Baltimore Clean Air Act, which would have placed the more stringent emissions standards on the facility. Wheelabrator sued the city, arguing that the standards were impossible to meet, and a federal judge struck down the law for overstepping state and federal regulations. Fearing a loss, Baltimore abandoned its plans to appeal and renegotiated with Wheelabrator as a part of its settlement. 

To continue operating, Wheelabrator is now required to spend $40 million on lowering emissions.

‘Starving the Beast’

Although motor vehicle exhaust is probably a greater source of pollution in South Baltimore than Wheelabrator, the incinerator’s smokestacks still account for 36 percent of the entire city’s industrial air pollution, according to the climate change advocacy organization Chesapeake Climate Action Fund Action Network. Its emissions include mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

According to Chris Skaggs, the executive director of the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, one of the required upgrades to Wheelabrator includes the installation of a fabric filter, which will reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from a daily average of no more than 29 parts per million to 18 parts per million. Another upgrade involves lowering the level of nitrogen oxides—currently no more than 145 parts per million on a 30-day rolling average—to 105 parts per million.

A recent study estimated that $55 million per year is spent on treating adverse health effects caused by Wheelabrator. Some of those ailments include elevated rates of asthma and chronic respiratory disease.

Wheelabrator sits just off of highway I-95 in South Baltimore, and the residents closest to it are mostly Black, low-income and less educated than in other parts of the city.

Campbell, who is also a member of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, said that her new strategy, now that Wheelabrator’s contract extension has been granted, is “starving the beast.” 

“I think that’s where we have to hurt them,” Campbell said of Wheelabrator’s trash, “taking the waste that they currently get right now from their biggest contracts, which is the city and the county.”

Ninety percent of the waste burned at Wheelabrator comes from the city and Baltimore County.

Skaggs said closing Wheelabrator is unsound because there will always be trash to contend with. He prefers to reduce the overall amount of waste by getting people “to change their habits where they can, so we don’t make it to begin with.”

A Path Toward Zero Waste

Mayor Scott, who was City Council president during last year’s board vote, was not in favor of extending Wheelabrator’s contract through 2031. Now his administration is trying to steer Baltimore toward zero waste.

A substantial part of his strategy involves diverting 90 percent of trash away from landfills by 2040, much of that done by removing food from the waste stream. His plan also includes composting and increasing recycling by supplying bins for city residents who have up until now had to buy their own. But none of this will be easy.

“It’s relatively cheap to burn trash [at Wheelabrator], which creates a real challenge when you’re looking at building up the alternatives,” Sawtell said. “And the market signal that sends is: Baltimore continues to be totally willing to burn the region’s limited natural resources in the next 10 years.”