The Eternal Flame
Waste incinerators win the political debate again
Published: May 25, 2011
The heat generated by waste incinerators pales next to the fiery politics they tend to ignite—though these battles usually end with industry victories. Another in a long string of wins was chalked up on May 19, when Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) rejected environmentalists’ calls for a veto and signed Senate Bill 690, a measure that will help the state reach its clean-energy goals by reclassifying trash-burning power plants as renewable-energy sources, like wind and solar.
With the stroke of a pen, Maryland now can start counting the kilowatts generated from waste-to-energy (WTE) plants as part of its renewable-power mix, which by law must account for 20 percent of the state’s energy sources by 2022. The bill’s enactment is a potential boon for the cash flow of WTE generators, and may lead to more plants being built, since the reclassification makes these sources more attractive to power companies looking to take advantage of credits for buying renewable energy.
In making his decision, O’Malley asked whether WTE generation was “better for the environment” than “the combination of coal and land filling, based on the best available science,” according to a statement. “The answer to that question is a qualified ‘yes.’”
Environmentalists—already stung by a 2011 legislative session that handed them a string of defeats, including on an off-shore wind-power project proposed by O’Malley—are in a snit. The Maryland League of Conservation Voters issued a statement calling O’Malley’s move a “step backwards” that would detract from efforts to increase the use of “true, clean energy sources like wind and solar” in the state’s energy mix. In an interview before the bill signing, WTE-bill opponent Greg Smith, director of the nonprofit Community Research, said that O’Malley “wants to be seen as a green governor, and here he is wrapping his arms around a bad technology.”
The green lobby in Baltimore has found incineration to be an especially hardy opponent. A generation ago, a proposed expansion of the since-closed Pulaski trash incinerator was so maligned that the city passed a five-year ban on incinerator construction. But the courts struck down the moratorium law, and a subsequent effort to revive it in the state legislature was dead on arrival.
In the late 1990s, environmentalists failed to stop the city from helping a controversial and financially strained medical-waste incinerator in Hawkins Point, whose polluting smokestack had long been a bane to communities in Baltimore’s southern reaches. The city changed the law to enlarge the incinerator’s “catchment area”—the legally set geographical boundaries within which it could collect fuel—from the immediate Baltimore area to a 250-mile radius. After a failed legislative effort in 2005 to rein in the radius, last year the city one-upped the favor by dropping the geographical restriction entirely.
While acknowledging that incineration technology has improved over the years, environmentalists point out that burning waste remains a major source of airborne pollutants, including mercury, particulates, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, and lead. O’Malley, in his statement about signing the WTE bill, called mercury emissions “the most worrisome aspect” of WTE plants, and promised that his administration would “strictly regulate the amount of mercury emanating from both existing and proposed waste-to-energy facilities” and propose legislation to help “remove mercury from the waste stream altogether.”
O’Malley’s main tool for keeping a lid on incinerator pollution is the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), but the agency’s oversight of a WTE plant in Baltimore’s Westport neighborhood—the landmark Wheelabrator facility, whose smokestack stands sentry over I-95—has been called into question by a national environmental group. The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), along with the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and Clean Water Action, successfully intervened in Wheelabrator’s permit-renewal process last year, prompting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to order MDE to strengthen the plant’s pollution-monitoring requirements.
EIP lawyer Jennifer Peterson explained the situation in a May 10 e-mail to Westport community leader Linda Towe, executive director of the nonprofit Project T.O.O.U.R. (Teaching Our Own Understanding and Responsibility) Inc., who was concerned about pollution coming out of Wheelabrator’s smokestack.
“We have serious concerns regarding the adequacy of the Clean Air Act operating permit for the facility,” Peterson explained. The permit requires it to “meet mercury limits at all times,” for instance, yet “only requires . . . an annual stack test to measure mercury emissions,” she continued. “This is like showing up once a year to take a speeding test. If you pass on that day, you’re in compliance for the entire year. Adequate monitoring is particularly important for incinerators because the air emissions can vary significantly based on the composition of the trash.”
MDE spokesperson Jay Apperson said in an e-mail that a revised Wheelabrator permit is in the works, and EPA spokesperson Bonnie Smith said that after MDE makes the revised permit “available for public comment”—which she expects to happen in a matter of weeks—“it then comes to EPA for a 45-day review” before becoming final.
But EIP’s Peterson suspects the agencies are dragging their feet. She wrote in her e-mail to Towe that EIP has “taken the first steps to sue EPA for their failure to act (in light of MDE’s failure to issue a revised permit) by sending a notice of intent to sue letter.” Wheelabrator did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Meanwhile, in South Baltimore’s industrial Fairfield peninsula, the construction of another WTE plant is expected to begin soon. If built as planned by Energy Answers International, it will burn 4,400 tons of waste per day to generate 145 megawatts of electricity—more than twice as much as Wheelabrator’s 2,000-ton and 60-megawatt capacity. Thanks to a special agreement with MDE, its construction got the go-ahead last year from the Maryland Public Service Commission without the normally required refuse-disposal permit—a waiver granted over the strident protests of environmentalists and Wheelabrator, who were united in casting the arrangement as “illegal.”
O’Malley, at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Energy Answers plant last October, extolled the incinerator project as emblematic of “where we’re going in this fight for a cleaner, greener, more sustainable future with more jobs.”
Community Research’s Smith, though, sees the project as another example of relying on dirty technology “whose benefits get inflated, and whose damaging impacts get slighted, whenever it is debated.”
In Maryland, though, history shows that whenever incineration gets debated, it keeps winning.
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