Trash Burners Sue Baltimore Over Clean Air Ordinance

BALTIMORE (CN) – Waste-handling companies brought a federal complaint Tuesday against the Baltimore city government, claiming it violated their constitutional rights “by imposing extraordinarily low emission limits” in an effort to shut down two of the city’s major waste incinerators.

Wheelabrator Baltimore LP, which runs a trash-to-energy plant in South Baltimore; Curtis Bay Energy LP, which operates a medical waste incinerator; and other plaintiffs in the case are challenging a city ordinance called the Baltimore Clean Air Act.

The city council passed the ordinance in February to require the city’s waste incinerators to drastically reduce the nitrogen oxide pollution the facilities generate and to meet the same emissions standards that are in place for newly constructed waste-burning plants.

The state currently allows the Wheelabrator plant to emit about five times as much nitrogen oxide as newly constructed plants.

Councilman Ed Reisinger was upfront about the ordinance targeting two facilities that lie in his own district, but he said it does not only benefit his constituents.

“It’s not just Westport or Mount Winans or South Baltimore,” he told the Baltimore Sun last fall after introducing the measure. “It depends on where the wind blows. It’s not just people that live here. It’s people coming in to visit that have got to breathe those chemicals, too.”

Reisinger did not immediately respond Tuesday to requests for comments on the suit.

“We anticipated the suit and will respond appropriately in due course in court,” City Solicitor Andre Davis said in an email.

The council had targeted the incinerators and their emissions for years with non-binding resolutions before passing the ordinance, and it called for state regulators to crack down, as well.

The Wheelabrator facility benefits from renewable energy credits, collecting millions of dollars in state “green energy” utility subsidies annually, according to a Sun investigation.

In the new complaint, the company says the city ordinance conflicts with state environmental laws and the federal Clean Air Act and is “not a good faith effort to regulate air emissions.”

The company believes the measure is “a targeted attempt to shut down two specific facilities, ignoring all other stationary and mobile sources of air emissions in the city.”

The limits under the city ordinance are lower than what’s required for any waste-to-energy facility in the U.S., according to the complaint, and it requires “technically infeasible” monitoring of emissions.

The city and surrounding area sends about 2,100 tons of solid waste to the Wheelabrator facility each day, while the medical waste incinerator swallows more than 10,000 tons a year.

“The city acknowledges that the act will at a minimum require the Wheelabrator Facility to close for some indeterminate period of time, and perhaps forever,” the 59-page complaint states. “The act will also cause the Curtis Bay [medical waste] Facility to shut down at least temporarily to install unnecessary and financially burdensome equipment upgrades.”

The plaintiffs claim temporary or permanent plant closures will harm the environment by “restricting safe disposal capacity.”  

The ordinance, which requires the facilities to strictly monitor and report their emissions, would also divert more than 100,000 tons of solid waste to overburdened landfills, the plaintiffs say, and create more air pollution in the trucking of this waste.

The city can’t legally require the facilities to be cleaner than the state requires them to be, according to the suit, which says the “Maryland Constitution and charter of Baltimore City do not grant the city the authority to adopt a general law that has effects well beyond the city, as the act does, and prohibit the city from passing laws that conflict with or are inconsistent with state laws.”

Wheelabrator filed a separate suit earlier this month against Baltimore County, in which it complains that the county is not sending enough waste for the facilities to burn.

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