Baltimore’s Historic Clean Air Act Could End Stagnation in Recycling

Date: 22 Feb 2019 | posted in: waste - anti-incineration, Waste to Wealth | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

On February 11th, the Baltimore City Council passed the Clean Air Act by a vote of 14-0. The legislation was sent to Mayor Pugh, who stated that she will sign the bill into law.

Starting around September 2020, the Act requires that Wheelabrator Inc., owner of the BRESCO garbage incinerator in downtown Baltimore, continuously monitor 20 different pollutants, disclose the data on a website real-time, and meet North America’s strictest standards for sulfur dioxide and mercury. Starting January 1, 2022, it would also require the nation’s strictest standards for nitrogen oxides and dioxins.

The Act sets a precedent and has major national importance. It is possible to use this local clean air law tactic in other states that have trash or medical waste incinerators or waste-burning cement kilns. New York, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Oklahoma, Utah, and California are among the states that allow local government to pass air pollution laws stricter than those at the state level.

The Act, which could lead to the closing of the BRESCO garbage incinerator, is the result of multi-phased grassroots activism over the past 5 years. This victory puts the city at the take-off stage of recycling, composting, and reuse.

The spark that led to the Act came from citizens in Curtis Bay. United Workers, working with former and current students of Ben Franklin High School, stopped plans to build a garbage incinerator on a 90-acre industrial site in Curtis Bay with extraordinary city-wide and even regional mobilization that garnered support from health workers, medical doctors, lawyers, community organizers, and students and their parents. Activists convinced city and regional institutions not to buy ‘dirty electricity’ from what would have been the largest garbage incinerator in the U.S., with a planned incineration capacity of  4,000 tons per day of the region’s garbage. Curtis Bay is the most contaminated zip code in the Baltimore. The anti-incineration fight triggered decades simmering resentment in the community about the city’s historical use of Curtis Bay as a dumping ground for industrial pollution. The site intended for the incinerator could now become a clean industrial park for green industry.

Support came from neighboring counties, state-wide, and national organizations. The effort led to a Goldman Environmental Leadership award for Destiny Watford, a principal organizer for United Workers. Ms. Watford is a Towson State University graduate, and former Ben Franklin High School student.

The Curtis Bay community changed the entire city’s attitude on incineration. Organized citizens throughout the city immediately targeted the 35-year-old highly polluting BRESCO incinerator operating in the Westport community in downtown Baltimore.

At the state level, activists argued against the subsidies going to the private facility, which was granted a Tier 1 designation under the federal Renewable Portfolio Standard, intended for solar and wind energy. Since 2011, BRESCO has received $10 million in subsidies. Maryland is the only state that makes garbage incineration eligible for Tier 1 status.

In 2016, Baltimore City Council passed a nonbinding resolution to move the city toward zero waste and “advance sustainability, public health, and job creation.” Two years later, the council passed another resolution that called for Maryland to support a proposal that would stop the Wheelabrator incinerator from receiving millions of dollars in green subsidies.

The Energy Justice Network (EJN) undertook special recycling pilot projects in the Westport and Cherry Hill neighborhoods, which disproved existing assumptions that low-income communities of color are not interested in recycling. Under a grant from the Abell Foundation, EJN arranged for proper carts, information, and economic incentives for households. Block leaders were engaged in the outreach efforts. Recycling in these communities jumped to as much as 39.9 percent — nearly triple the city’s recycling rate, estimated at 14 percent by Dante Swinton of EJN. (The official rate from the city is 24 percent, but this must be reduced to at least 19 percent as the city gets a 5 percent recycling credit from the state because of BRESCO.) The national average is 34 percent, and the Maryland state goal is 35 percent. Many cities are recycling at the 50, 60, and even 70 percent level. The data from Westport and Cherry Hill confirms the powerful link between recycling rates and providing information and incentives.

Mike Ewall, an attorney and director of EJN, prepared the Clean Air Act that the City Council passed. Council Members believe the act is the only way to force the city to address recycling and composting, which has not been a priority of the Department of Public Works.

“The Clean Air Act is a momentous change and will bring momentous changes in the way the city operates, but until the Clean Air Act is law, plans will not be made,” said Council Member Mary Pat Clarke (D-14). “We cannot wait forever and wait until dinosaurs roam the earth. We need to set time limits and standards and deadlines because that’s the only way that planning ever happens.”

Council Member Ed Reisinger added, “DPW needs to develop a plan for recycling.” The pervading sentiment in the city is that conforming to the Clean Air Act won’t be an easy process, but that unless it’s passed, Baltimore will keep stalling instead of taking real action.

The Act would not take effect for two years, giving the City time to plan for the transition. The economics are in favor of recycling, as the cost of continuing to use the incinerator until 2040 is close to $300 million, plus $100 million to expand the in-town landfill where ash and bypass waste from the incinerator are now deposited. Thus, the city can afford to build the infrastructure (rail haul, distributed composting, expanded reuse enterprises, unit pricing for garbage collection) needed to stem the wasting. Given the low recycling rate in the city, there is ample room to grow recycling, composting, reuse, and thousands of jobs that can flow from this infrastructure. Recycling in Baltimore can be seen as a tiny acorn that can grow into a mighty oak tree that provides environmental and economic dividends for generations to come.

See earlier reporting by ILSR on the City Council hearings on January 30, 2019 for the Clean Air Act here.

ILSR has done a significant amount of work on recycling and composting in Baltimore. In 2017, the Waste to Wealth Initiative prepared a report, Why Should Baltimore Recycle More?, which presents a scenario for transitioning away from the incinerator and details the potential cost-saving and job-creating potential of recycling, composting, and reuse. Among the next steps recommended were unit pricing for household garbage collection, a distributed composting program, and development of repair and reuse enterprises. ILSR’s Composting for Community Initiative assisted the Baltimore Office of Sustainability (BOS) in the development of the Baltimore Food Waste Recovery Strategy. ILSR also served on the BOS solid waste management and recycling committee for the Sustainability Plan released in January 2019 and continues to serve on Mayor Pugh’s Clean Communities Task Force. Additionally, working with United Workers and the Filbert Street Garden in Curtis Bay, ILSR built two 3-bin composting systems and launched the Baltimore Compost Collective, organics collection enterprise that employs youth and serves households and small businesses.


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Neil Seldman

Neil Seldman, Ph.D, directs the Waste to Wealth Initiative. He specializes in helping cities and businesses recover increasing amounts of materials from the waste stream and add value to the local economy through new processing and manufacturing facilities. He is a co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.