Advocates Ask EPA to Investigate Baltimore City for Harming Disinvested Communities

A Title VI complaint alleges that the city’s latest waste management plan fails to devise a clear path away from trash incineration, further harming the adjacent communities.

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The smokestack of the WIN Waste Incinerator is seen near Interstate 95 in Baltimore. Credit: Eva Hambach/AFP via Getty Images
The smokestack of the WIN Waste Incinerator is seen near Interstate 95 in Baltimore. Credit: Eva Hambach/AFP via Getty Images

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Advocates for South Baltimore’s overburdened neighborhoods have called out Mayor Brandon Scott for broken promises and policy flip flops by lodging a federal civil rights complaint, known as a Title VI violation, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Baltimore City’s 10-year solid waste plan fails to commit resources necessary to steer the city away from reliance on the WIN Waste (formerly Wheelabrator and BRESCO) incinerator, according to the Title VI complaint, filed on Tuesday by the South Baltimore Community Land Trust (SBCLT), the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP). The structure is the largest stationary source of industrial air pollution in Baltimore.  

By failing to move away from trash incineration, the complaint alleges, the city has violated federal civil rights law by continuing to harm the adjacent predominantly Black and Hispanic South Baltimore communities, which are already overburdened with pollution-spewing industrial facilities and truck traffic that exposes residents to hazardous contaminants and events like explosions, fires and chemical leaks. 

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The Title VI complaint is intended to halt federal funding for entities engaged in discriminatory practices—in this case, the Baltimore City Department of Public Works (DPW).

The incinerator, located off I-95 next to Baltimore’s most disadvantaged communities, routinely emits hazardous pollutants, including mercury, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter. These emissions contribute to respiratory issues, heart conditions and other serious health problems, the complaint said, particularly in nearby neighborhoods.

According to a 2017 study commissioned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, emissions from the WIN Waste incinerator cost Maryland and neighboring states $55 million in human health problems annually. Based on 2011 emissions data, the incinerator’s NOx emissions deposited an average of 6,570 pounds per year of nitrogen pollution directly into the Chesapeake Bay, causing harmful algal blooms that can lead to low-oxygen dead zones, the study said.

“The complaint addresses the unequal risks experienced in the neighborhoods of Cherry Hill, Brooklyn, Curtis Bay, Lakeland, Westport, and Mt. Winans, categorized as disadvantaged by the White House Council on Environmental Quality’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, indicating they’re above the 90th percentile for environmental burdens,” the South Baltimore Community Land Trust said in a statement after the complaint was filed.

 The EPA may choose to reject or accept the complaint for further investigation. 

Leah Kelly, a senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, said the complaint is seeking relief that includes a commitment by the city to take specific steps on a defined timeline to make investments in composting and recycling infrastructure. City leaders have said multiple times that they want to transition away from the trash incinerator, she said, adding that it is past time to create a suitable plan to develop composting infrastructure in and near the city.

“Trash incinerators and landfills produce unacceptable levels of toxic and climate-harming pollution and they are often sited in marginalized communities. We cannot continue relying on these facilities as our primary waste disposal options, as Baltimore City has in this plan,” Kelly said. “We must plan a transition to better alternatives. That is part of what South Baltimore residents are seeking in this complaint.”  

A statement from the Baltimore City Department of Public Works said that it is aware of the complaint’s request for the EPA to examine the city’s use of the incinerator for residential waste disposal. “The City and DPW stand ready to work with the EPA if and when the agency needs the City’s help in assessing these claims,” the agency’s spokeswoman added, but declined to comment on the advocates’ assertion that Mayor Scott did not keep his promise to phase out incineration. 

A spokesperson for Win Waste incinerator could not immediately be reached for comment, but has previously said that waste-to-energy incinerators provide stable, baseline energy, and are integral to filling the generation gaps left by intermittent energy sources like wind and solar. In a prior statement, the spokesperson said that Maryland’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard “is not promoting waste-to-energy over or instead of wind or solar. It is a complementary source to ensure the state meets its renewable and reliability energy goals.” 

The Title VI complaint also mentioned that the city did not commit enough budgetary resources to create alternative waste diversion infrastructure by 2031, when Baltimore’s current 10-year contract with WIN Waste expires. 

“Trash incinerators and landfills produce unacceptable levels of toxic and climate-harming pollution and they are often sited in marginalized communities.”

The current draft of the city’s budget allocated no capital spending in Fiscal 2025 for zero waste infrastructure, the complaint said, highlighting that the DPW only requested $2 million in the proposed budget starting in 2026 to construct a compost facility that would not be ready until 2030. “DPW is not requesting any funding for the construction of additional facilities through the FY25-FY30 planning period,” the complaint said.   

Advocates for the impacted communities say they have also grown weary of Scott’s promises to transition away from incineration, which he made while campaigning for the mayor’s office in 2020. The city, in settling an appeal over the Baltimore Clean Air Act, agreed to a 10-year contract in 2020 to keep incinerating its waste through 2031.

The DPW received more than 700 public comments in the course of developing its latest 10-year solid waste plan in 2023, mostly calling for the city to invest in a compost facility and other zero-waste infrastructure to divert trash, which is otherwise burned or sent to landfills. 

Instead, the department’s final solid waste management plan, which went into effect in early 2024, failed to convince the advocates that the city was serious about phasing out incineration. 

“All of those public comments didn’t lead to the city making the substantive improvements we wanted to see in the plan. And now, the budget Mayor Scott’s administration has put in front of the city council isn’t even living up to that plan, which does little in charting away from trash incineration,” said Jennifer Kunze, Maryland director for Clean Water Action, a nonprofit advocacy group. 

She said it was disheartening to see the city waste management plan literally saying that “until there is universal, coordinated adoption of waste diversion practices across public and private sectors, it is likely that the [WIN Waste incinerator] will continue to operate at or near its current throughput.” 

Scott made promises and now it’s time to keep them, Kunze said, adding that transition away from trash incineration will be a top priority of environmentalists in the city for the next four years.

The advocates said they were particularly aghast to learn about Scott’s letter to the state Senate Committee on Energy, Education and Environment in January, when the committee was deliberating on the bill proposing an end to public subsidies for dirty trash incineration. Maryland designates trash incineration as “tier one” renewable energy on par with wind and solar under 2011 legislation, making it eligible for public dollars through the state’s clean energy credit system. 

“The removal of waste to energy from Tier 1 of the renewable energy credits would not have a known direct financial impact on the City of Baltimore,” the mayor said in his “Letter of Information” to the committee. “However, if the removal of these credits were to cause that facility to close, Baltimore City finances and operations as they relate to waste management would likely be significantly affected,” Scott wrote, adding that Baltimore is currently facing an estimated $100 million deficit for Fiscal Year 2025. 

“We were counting on Mayor Scott’s continued support of the Reclaim Renewable Energy Act,” Kunze said. “His administration pledged their support just days before the Senate hearing, then withdrew it and submitted that letter of information. What a slap in the face.”  

The Mayor’s letter not only expresses continued reliance on the incinerator but advocates for “its continued existence,” the Title VI complaint said. The complainants also noted it was “the first official action taken following the adoption of the city’s solid waste management plan (SWMP).”

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The solid waste plan was signed and adopted by the mayor and City of Baltimore on Nov. 29, 2023, and approved by the Maryland Department of the Environment on Jan. 29, 2024. The final plan was certified on Feb. 20, 2024. Because the plan will be implemented over the course of a 10-year period, the EPA has continuing jurisdiction to review and address DPW’s operations and actions. 

“The city’s solid waste plan was biased in favor of incineration before it was even written, which is why we opposed the entire process,” said Mike Ewall, executive director of Energy Justice Network, a nonprofit coalition. “Studies show that burning trash and landfilling ash is far more harmful than landfilling waste directly, even if the city had to truck waste out of state. For the sake of public health and environmental justice, the city ought to prohibit any further contracts to burn the city’s waste.”

The EPA is set to release stricter emissions standards for large incinerators by the end of 2024. The agency estimates that the health benefits from the new limits due to reductions in particulate matter and ozone alone will be up to $14 billion over 20 years.  laws, a Title VI complaint alleges. 

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