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On any given day, 300 trucks pull up to a building not far from downtown Baltimore and dump their loads into a pit filled with 2,200 tons of the city's trash.
A fire burning inside that building turns the mountain of garbage into a manageable pile of ash, and creates electricity as a byproduct.
But the fire could be going out.
The Baltimore City Council passed an ordinance in February that will put strict pollution limits on the two incinerators that operate in the city, including one owned by the New Hampshire-based company Wheelabrator.
"It's got to be closed," says Ed Reisinger, the councilman who sponsored the bill. "That was my narrative and directive: to shut down Wheelabrator."
The clean-air regulations will force Wheelabrator — the city's top industrial polluter — to continuously monitor 20 pollutants and disclose the information in real time on a public website. It will also reduce the amount of allowable emissions like sulfur dioxides, mercury and nitrogen oxides. The full measure will go into effect in 2022.
"We're not asking them to do anything a modern facility can't do," says Mike Ewall, who led the effort to pass Baltimore's ordinance for the national environmental group Energy Justice Network. "It's just that Wheelabrator doesn't want to spend that kind of money."
To comply, Wheelabrator would have to invest in more expensive pollution-scrubbing technology, or shut down. Its contract with the city expires at the end of 2021. First, however, the company will take its fight to court. Wheelabrator's Mike Dougherty says regulating emissions is the domain of state and federal agencies — not the city.
"We are pretty confident in our legal position," he says. "We don't see this facility closing."
But many other plants already have. About 75 waste-to-energy incinerators operate in the U.S., down from 97 in 2001, according to the Energy Recovery Council. Last month, the operators of a Detroit garbage incinerator announced it was closing down after years of complaints from neighbors.
Closing the plant in Baltimore would trigger a cascade of side effects. Namely, the city would have to find some other way to manage the 1.2 million tons of garbage it produces each year.
Inside Baltimore's Trash Incinerator
The scale of the problem becomes clear from the glassed-in observation deck above the Wheelabrator refuse pit, where two cranes lift load after load of soiled mattresses, broken suitcases, plastic bottles and other detritus into the fire. Each crane bucket can hold 7 tons of trash.
"There's a huge amount of volume that's generated in the metro area that we say grace over and process every day," Dougherty says.
He cites the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's preferred hierarchy of waste management, which puts waste-to-energy plants ahead of landfilling. That's primarily because decaying garbage at a dump emits a potent greenhouse gas — methane — into the atmosphere.
"The road to zero waste will take decades. In the meantime, we still have to handle the waste in an environmentally friendly fashion," Dougherty says.
Wheelabrator gets financial incentives from the state of Maryland for producing renewable energy from the endless supply of trash and biomass delivered to its facility. The fuel is burned, and then converted into steam that heats 250 buildings downtown.
Columbia University earth sciences professor Nickolas Themelis says environmental groups fighting waste-to-energy plants are misguided.
"Environmental organizations, from this aspect, they're anti-environmental," he says. "I think it's something left over from the 1980s when incinerators were a major polluter because they didn't have the right controls. We didn't know about mercury. We didn't know about dioxins."
Since then, the federal government has forced incinerators to clean up their act, Themelis says. In the '90s, the EPA required waste-to-energy operators to retrofit their plants with new pollution controls.
Wheelabrator is in compliance with state and federal regulations, says environmental health and safety manager Brad Keller, adding the 65 employees who go to work at the building each day wouldn't do so if they thought their health was at risk.
"We're here on a daily basis. I wouldn't want to be subjecting myself to anything like that," Keller says. "I have trust in what we do here."
But environmental groups aren't ready to let Wheelabrator off the hook. Activists say modern pollution controls aren't enough to keep particulate matter, carbon dioxide, mercury and other toxins from the atmosphere.
"Incinerators poison our air and put our lives at risk, especially those folks who live in poor neighborhoods like Curtis Bay where I grew up," says Destiny Watford, a community activist who successfully stopped a new trash-burning project from being built in her neighborhood when she was still in high school. "You can expect an entire decade to be shaved off of your life simply because of where you were born."
A Landfill That's Nearly Full
The City Council appears to be sympathetic to activists like Watford. But the new pollution restrictions on trash incinerators have exposed a problem.
If the 716,000 tons of trash Wheelabrator handles each year isn't burned, it has to go somewhere.
Baltimore's Quarantine Road Landfill — at the extreme southern end of the city — is a key part of the city's waste-disposal equation. After Wheelabrator's furnaces reduce the mass of the city's garbage pile by 90%, the ash that's left over is dumped at the landfill.
The city dump is already at 90% capacity, and would fill up completely by 2024 without incineration, says the city's chief of disposal services, James Rohrbach.
"Depending on what portion of the waste that goes to BRESCO comes here, it's going to feel a considerable amount of pressure," he adds, using the plant's former name. "Our volume would increase by about 40 or 50%."
The city is planning to expand the landfill, but it will take money and time to clear regulatory hurdles and construction. The Department of Public Works predicts it would cost the city nearly $98 million over seven years to divert trash from the incinerator to the landfill.
"Until we have a sea change in the way we consume and what we throw away, you're going to need a landfill," Rohrbach says.
'Learn So You Don't Have To Burn'
Amid all this uncertainty, the city of Baltimore is also drafting a plan to rethink the way it manages trash over the next 30 years. In 2017, the City Council passed a nonbinding resolution that would make Baltimore a zero-waste city, which means it would strive to send as little as possible to a landfill.
"This is the right time to think about, 'What other innovative ways can we deploy here and try to go green?' " says public works director Rudolph Chow.
Chow says boosting Baltimore's recycling rate will be a component of the long-term plan, but doing so will be more difficult now that China has banned imports of foreign recyclables.
Without that demand, the department says recycling costs have gone up 191% from a year ago.
"Where we used to get paid to recycle, we now actually pay someone else to haul away our recyclables," Chow says.
A man named Marvin Hayes believes he may have an answer to these problems.
Hayes runs the Baltimore Compost Collective, tucked away behind the beehives and babbling duck ponds of the Filbert Street Garden. It's an oasis in a neighborhood better known for elevated asthma rates and industrial pollution.
To make his nutrient-rich Black Leaf Gold, Hayes and his team collect about 7 tons of food scraps every year from homes and a few local businesses.
"It is an alternative," says Hayes, holding a steaming clod of compost in his hand. "The campaign I'm pushing for Baltimore city is compost: Learn so you don't have to burn."
Hayes estimates up to half of Baltimore's municipal trash can be composted, and 30% can be recycled, "so we're hoping we'll be the small-scale composting operation that will lead Baltimore to large scale."
And it will have to be. The 7 tons Hayes composts each year is the equivalent of just one truckload of garbage — compared to the 300 trucks currently hauling to Wheelabrator each day.
"It can be modeled around the city," he says. "It's 2019. We don't have to burn our garbage."
This segment aired on April 25, 2019.
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