Friday, February 8, 2019

All about trash: Baltimore's Clean Air Act

Baltimore City drowns in trash. Trash is a perennial favorite topic in Baltimore with a general consensus that the city is especially trashy compared to others, one of several things that sets us unfavorably apart.
Slide used by Clean Air activist Destiny Watford at an Environmental
Summit this week in Annapolis 

But the latest round of trash debate elevates the matter to an all new level. To 1.2 million annual tons level of trash, to be exact, and that is only the official count!  At stake is where this trash should go.

About 700,000 tons of waste (2011) go to the incinerator Baltimoreans know as the BRESCO plant, conveniently located at I-95 and The Baltimore Washington Parkway, right next to Baltimore's casino and Greyhound bus station. The plant is featuring a big smokestack that says "Baltimore",  a gateway symbol of sorts. Zero waste and anti incinerator activist Destiny Watford calls it the "worst idea of a welcome sign".

The plant was built in 1984 and started operation in 1985. It burns trash from the City and the County collected by the municipalities or by commercial haulers. The plant can burn maximally 2,250 tones of waste a day, that is about 200 trash trucks which can hold anywhere between 8 and 12 tons of trash, depending on their size (Much of Baltimore's fleet has smaller trucks which fit through the narrow alleys where can's typically are picked up.)
Trash is everywhere, not just in the collection trucks

The plant turns trash into steam by burning the refuse at around 2,250 degrees Fahrenheit. What remains is about 10% of the volume in the form of ash, about 200,000 tons if the plant would work at capacity. The ash is deposited on 153 acres of City land at the Quarantine Road landfill. (The landfill itself is 126 acres large) which began operation concurrent with the incinerator. The capacity is slightly less than 10 million tons of waste, the estimates about when that capacity would be reached were adjusted a few times to account for the density of ash which makess up the bulk of the landfill material. The benefits of the incinerator -landfill combo are three:
  • It all happens within the reach and domain of Baltimore's own Department of Public Works and 
  • The incinerator creates up to half a million pounds of steam per hour used to produce maximally 60 MW of electric energy 
  • The incinerator creates  district heat for downtown Baltimore circulated and operated by Trigen.  (all data from the City's mandatory10 Year Solid Waste Management Plan)
The problems are threefold as well:
  • The incinerator is the single largest point source polluter in the City, responsible for an estimated 1/3 of all City air pollution including extreme toxins such as dioxin and mercury.
  • the incinerator plant is technologically obsolete but there is no replacement in sight
  • the landfill is almost at capacity and is expected to fill by 2026 
The waste incineration concept also plays out at the Curtis Bay Energy operated nationally largest medical waste incinerator which is permitted for 62,000 tons of medical waste a year, but usually  accepts less than half of that.
Metal scrap recycling: Not without environmental challenges
(Photo: Timothy Wheeler, 2017)

The Mayor, Baltimore City Council and DPW have no solutions in hand for the triple challenge, even though the clock is ticking loudly given the relatively close end of usable life for the incinerator and the landfill. There is the mandatory 10 year waste management plan, but it doesn't provide a clear path forward.

Many believe that incineration of trash should be a thing of the past. This is what Josh Tulkin, State Director of the Maryland Sierra Club told me:
The Sierra Club believes that Maryland shoots commit to a rapid transition away from fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) and other carbon intensive sources of energy, and towards clean renewable energy. This starts with setting strong goals and aligning incentives to work towards these goals. The state of Maryland should not be incentivizing trash incineration. Everyone knows the saying "reduce, reuse, recycle" but we often skip the first two steps. Communities that have been most successful in waste reduction focus on all three elements (Tulkin).   
The matter came to a head this week when Council passed the second reader of the Clean Air Act this week and voted  to drastically increase the clean air requirements for incinerators, specifically by limiting the limits for mercury, sulfur dioxide, dioxins and nitrogen-oxides. The 2021 deadline for compliance had been removed in this round of the bill. The legislation will be up for another reader.
Living on a dump: Supertramp Album cover.

The Council also adopted a Resolution to remove the incentives the incinerator receives for "renewable energy" by eliminating trash incineration as an accepted renewable energy source. The resolution is tracking a similar bill in the State legislature.

The Clean Air Baltimore campaign and the proponents of the bill argue that Baltimore is not only in non-compliance with the federal Clean Air Act but has some of the worst air in the nation.

To clean up the air, the Council set emission standards which match the strictest standards for sulfur dioxide (SO2, 18 ppm/VD) and mercury (15 micrograms/cbm) in effect in North America in 2020, match North America’s strictest standards for dioxins (2.6 nanograms/cbm) and nitrogen oxides (NOx, 45ppm/VD) by 2022 and match the NOx standard met by the newest incinerator in the U.S., in West Palm Beach, Florida. This is also the same standard as the Maryland Department of the Environment required for the Wheelabrator facility once proposed in Frederick, MD which was defeated by local opposition in 2014. The mercury, dioxin and SO2 standards match those of the newest trash incinerator in Canada at the Durham-York Energy Center in Ontario. (per Clean Air website). The emission limits appear to be significantly lower than those allowed by EPA, especially for NOx and mercury. The value for dioxins/furans given in the City bill may be incorrect since it appears to be about six times that on the EPA table pg 129).
Zero Waste graphic by "Waste Management"

The clean air activists describe "Zero Waste" policies as the alternative to incineration and landfilling. A Zero Waste policy has been adopted by many cities, including by the New York City Boroughs which closed the Freshkills landfill to create a park. In the meantime, though, the Boroughs ship waste on barges to North Carolina at a cost of $300 million per year, hardly a sustainable practice. A study for Baltimore estimated the immediate cost of closing the incinerator for Baltimore to be $136 million over four years. (SUN).
The best option is for Baltimore to adopt a Zero Waste plan, as City
Council called for in Council Bill 17-0022R, the Zero Waste resolution adopted on June 5th, 2017. Such a plan would have the city end the use of incineration and eventually divert at least 90% of its waste from landfill, by maximizing source reduction, reuse, recycling and composting. This would stretch the life of the
landfill out tremendously. (Clean Air website)
Not surprisingly, Wheelabrator, the current operator of the BRESCO plant sees the matter differently. "As advocates of environmentally and fiscally responsible approaches to waste management, we disagree with the City Council's decision to advance this legislation without regard for its environmental or economic consequences," Jim Connolly, vice president of environmental health and safety for Wheelabrator stated. On its own campaign website ("get the facts, Baltimore"), the company stresses its environmental contributions:
By using local, post-recycled waste as fuel to create a local energy ecosystem, the facility diverts waste from landfills and lowers greenhouse gases by recycling metals, offsetting the use of fossil fuels and reducing methane gas emissions from landfills. Wheelabrator [...] provide[s] as much as 52 net megawatts of clean, renewable baseload energy for sale to the local utility after meeting its own power demands. That is enough electricity to power 38,000 Maryland homes. Wheelabrator Baltimore delivers “green steam” to the downtown district energy system operated by Veolia North America— which serves more than 255 businesses including M&T Bank Stadium.
National recycling rates hover around 30%, Baltimore is at about half of that. single stream recycling has been widely adopted in the US and has led to China closing its borders to US recycling shipments due to unacceptable contamination. After China dropped out of the recycling loop, even places with much more stringent recycling practices, such as Germany, had to find out that far more than half of their recycled waste still winds up in incinerators, landfills or foreign storage, dimming any hopes to drive waste production anywhere near zero.
BRESCO plant Baltimore: 700,000 tons of trash going up in smoke
(SUN photo)

Climate change, the growing dangers from plastic in our environment, and the continued health challenges from bad air in metropolitan areas force a drastic new course of action, unless one wants to ignore those ticking time bombs jeopardizing the future of our children.

Still, well intended bills won't do the trick, unless there is a clear path towards how the desirable outcomes can realistically be achieved. The adopted Baltimore City styrofoam ban now being considered statewide as part of this years legislative agenda in Annapolis is a good start, but much more has to happen on the waste reduction side before emissions on the waste management side can be effectively driven down.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Additional information added Monday 2/11/19:

Mira Green, Senior Budget Management Analyst at City of Baltimore clarified via Facebook: In 2011 BRESCO received 415,000 tons of trash from the City and 285,000 tons from the County, both numbers include trash collected from households and commercial trash. Last year the City of Baltimore was billed for 159,000 tons of household trash collected by DPW, the County for 215,000 tons. This low City number suggests that the total City solid waste volume was potentially lower than in 2011 and that a substantial amount of waste comes from commercial haulers. It is also worth noting, that more waste came from the County than the City. The decision about the future of incineration, therefore, has truly regional consequences.

Wheelabrator has ramped up its propaganda against the Baltimore Clean Air Act in light of the final Council vote on Tuesday 2/12/19. Councilman Zeke Cohen alleges that the We can B'more  campaign started by the incinerator operator violates the Transparency in Lobby Act. (Video). He clarifies that the Incinerator wouldn't have to close down immediately upon passage of the bill but in 2021.

Baltimore SUN about Wheelabrator

Previous clean air and trash related articles on this blog:

Baltimore's air requires action

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