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Shawanda Campbell, environmental activist Photo: National Recycling Coalition
By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer
The Wheelabrator waste-to-energy incinerator is Baltimore’s biggest standing source of air pollution. Its smokestacks send toxic mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides into the air off of I-95 in South Baltimore, whose residents are primarily Black and low-income. The energy that comes from burning the city’s trash gets classified as a renewable energy source that counts toward Maryland’s clean energy goals. As Inside Climate News reports, the City Council voted unanimously for stricter air pollution standards and the city’s new mayor didn’t want to extend the incinerator’s contract. But the incinerator is still operational after the city’s Board of Estimates voted to keep burning trash for the next 10 years — even longer than Wheelabrator asked for.
Why This Matters: High polluting incinerators like the Wheelabrator facility are both harmful and expensive. They cause asthma and other respiratory diseases in the surrounding communities, which Baltimore spends an estimated $55 million treating. Black Americans are nearly 80% more likely than whites to live near industrial pollution. In this case, auto emissions from I-95 are a huge problem in the area too. As a high school student at Ben Franklin High School in South Baltimore, Shashawnda Campbell co-founded “Free Your Voice”, a student-led group that has worked for years to shut down the incinerator. Having lost the long battle to close the incinerator, she is now advocating that residents decrease their waste and recycle more in order to literally starve it to death.
From waste incineration to Zero Waste
While the Baltimore facility may have another decade in operation, the state and advocates have solutions for reducing its negative impact. The Maryland General Assembly is currently considering a bill that would make incineration not count as renewable energy.
“This incinerator,” Shashawnda Campbell said in testimony supporting the bill, “… is not a system that we, in any way, should be indulging and giving subsidies because it does not deserve it.”
Advocates are also taking a Zero Waste strategy: if there’s no trash, there’s nothing for the incinerator to burn. The plan is to divert 90% of the city’s trash away from landfills by composting and increasing recycling city-wide. Almost all of the waste burned at the incinerator comes from Baltimore city and its surrounding county.
“I think that’s where we have to hurt them,” Campbell told Inside Climate News, “taking the waste that they currently get right now from their biggest contracts, which is the city and the county.” Campbell was recently recognized as one of thirty young women shaping Baltimore’s future.
By creating less trash, the city isn’t just starving the incinerator — they’ll also be shifting toward a more sustainable system that reduces waste.
In the meantime, to settle its Clean Air Act litigation over the incinerator, the City of Baltimore renegotiated with Wheelabrator and the company is now required to spend $40 million on lowering emissions. Wastedive reported that the agreement also established “emissions limits that meet the city’s air regulations, with the exception of nitrogen oxides. Those would be reduced by “nearly 50%” of current levels to 105 parts per million dry volume, per the Wednesday meeting agenda. Stack emissions will be tested three times per year to gauge compliance.” But opponents say it’s not enough, and have vowed to fight by decreasing their waste.
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