Waste to Energy Plant in City & State Legislative Crosshairs

Baltimore Sun article (2018-11-30) reported that legislation proposed by the Baltimore City Council and the Maryland General Assembly will target the City’s waste to energy plant/trash incinerator. Proponents of the legislation argued that the plant produces significant amounts of air pollution and contributes to climate change. Opponents countered that waste to energy is environmentally better than landfilling, produces electricity more cleanly than fossil fuels, and that motor vehicles generate far more air pollution in the City than the plant does.

The plant, run by Wheelabrator Baltimore, handles nearly 80% of the City’s trash and has been in operation since 1985. In addition to the City’s waste, the plant also processes solid waste from Anne Arundel, Baltimore, and Howard Counties.

Proposed City Ordinance

The proposed City ordinance would require the Wheelabrator plant and a medical waste incinerator to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions to a concentration of 45 parts per million. (In contrast, state regulators are considering a concentration requirement of 145 parts per million averaged over 30 days.) The ordinance also requires monitoring and public reporting. City Council Member Ed Reisinger is the ordinance’s primary sponsor and all but two Council Members have signed onto the bill. From the article:

“It’s not just [about air pollution in] Westport or Mount Winans or South Baltimore. It depends on where the wind blows,” Reisinger said. “It’s not just people that live here. It’s people coming in to visit that have got to breathe those chemicals, too.” …

[Wheelabrator Vice President of Environmental Health and Safety Jim] Connolly said the Wheelabrator facility is already subject to, and consistently meets, federal and state air quality regulations. The company already continuously monitors its emissions, and it completes hundreds of routine compliance checks every day, he said.

The article noted that the ordinance would likely receive a hearing in January, 2019. The ordinance does not address how the City would dispose of its trash if the plant closed or had to limit its operations in order to comply with the ordinance.

Proposed General Assembly Legislation

Legislation is expected to be introduced during the 2019 Session that would require Maryland to have 50 percent of its electricity generated by renewable sources by 2030 and also remove waste to energy plants from being counted as a renewable energy source. Currently, waste to energy plants are counted as a renewable energy source, meaning they can receive additional subsidies for the electricity they generate (the Wheelabrator plant averages around $1 million in subsidies a year according to the article).

The proposal is largely driven by climate change concerns that were recently magnified by the release of a federal report predicting more severe consequences from climate change by the end of the century than previously predicted. From the article:

Sen. Brian Feldman, a Montgomery County Democrat who is sponsoring what is again being called the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act, said he thinks the recent federal report’s warnings about the perils of inaction on climate change are likely to persuade lawmakers.  …

“It makes the case even more compelling both on the economic and environmental front,” [Feldman] said. …

“Waste-to-energy is globally recognized as a form of environmentally responsible sustainable waste management and clean energy generation,” [Connolly] said. “The U.S. EPA and similar regulatory bodies and countries across the globe endorse and aggressively invest in waste to energy.”

The article also indicated that the bill proponents believe they have enough votes in the General Assembly to have a veto-proof majority.

Learn more about recycling and solid waste challenges at the MACo January 2019 Winter Conference panel Trash Backlash: Will Going Green Put Us in the Red?. The panel will take place on Wednesday, January 2, from 3:15 pm – 4:15 pm.

Learn more about MACo’s Winter Conference: