Worried about the high cost of new pollution controls for the city's South Baltimore waste-to-energy plant, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has asked federal environmental officials to show "flexibility" in applying their rules to the cash-strapped city.
Schmoke met with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly in Washington last week to outline his concerns over proposed EPA incinerator regulations.
The mayor said he asked the EPA chief to consider the cost-effectiveness of requiring all-new emission controls for relatively modern incinerators like the Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co. burner on Russell Street.
"That plant had in place technology that was state of the art as of 1985," Schmoke said in an interview after the meeting.
Schmoke said he had asked for the meeting some time ago, but brought up BRESCO in particular when he learned how much it will cost to make it comply with new regulations.
For example, acid gas scrubbers to comply with EPA's emission limits could cost $70 million to $80 million at BRESCO, according to George T. Hudnet Jr., regional vice president of Wheelabrator Environmental Services, which operates the facility for the city.
The facility already has electrostatic precipitators, which remove particles from smokestack emissions. But, under the EPA proposals, BRESCO may also have to replace the precipitators with devices called baghouses, which are more effective. That cost could reach $20 million, by one EPA official's estimate.
The incinerator, which burns up to 2,250 tons of municipal and commercial waste a day to produce steam, cost only $200 million to build.
Hudnet said Wheelabrator already is planning to install the scrubbers, which cool smokestack emissions enough to remove dioxins, mercury and other pollutants. The city will have to help pay for such improvements through higher tipping fees at the site.
Schmoke said the city was prepared to help pay for scrubbers, but questioned the need to replace the precipitators. Precipitators and scrubbers combined remove 99.2 percent to 99.5 percent of all pollutants, the mayor said, while bag- houses and scrubbers have a 99.7 percent removal efficiency.
"We're talking about a 0.2 percent difference," Schmoke said. "As we look down the road at a tough economy and having to use our environmental dollars wisely, I just hope he [Reilly] would exercise the flexibility given him" under the federal Clean Air Act.
EPA's proposed incinerator rules also could require similar, costly pollution controls for the city's Pulaski Incinerator. But Schmoke said he did ask EPA for a break for that facility, which the Maryland Department of the Environment recently cited for air pollution violations.
Though the city might be forced to pay 85 percent of the cost of new pollution controls at Pulaski, city officials hope the facility will be sold, relieving them of that obligation. Talks between Pulaski's owners and two waste-management firms have been going on for months.
Edwin B. "Ted" Erickson, administrator of EPA's Region III, which includes Maryland, attended the meeting and said he planned to look into how the agency's incinerator regulations would affect BRESCO and the city.
"We'll have to work through the situation and see if we can try to minimize the financial impact," he said.
Environmentalists are likely to oppose any easing of the proposed incinerator regulations. They already are criticizing EPA for delaying the rules.
"It would be a mistake to say, 'Gee, this looks awfully expensive for an incinerator. We'll stop short of what we could do,' " said David Hawkins, of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
While incinerator emission controls are costly, he said, they may push cities like Baltimore to recycle more garbage and burn less.
The environmental group has notified EPA that it intends to sue the agency for failing to issue the incinerator rules by the deadline set in the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments.
Congress gave EPA until last Nov. 15 to revise its emission standards and pollution-control guidelines for large, existing incinerators such BRESCO and the Pulaski Highway facility.
EPA has yet to issue those revisions. Fred Porter, a section chief in EPA's air management division, said the agency is running "a year to two years behind schedule" in issuing incinerator regulations.
EPA already has set emission limits for all but three pollutants likely to come out of incinerator smokestacks. The three missing standards are for lead, cadmium and mercury.
While there may not seem to be a great difference between the removal efficiency of one set of pollution controls and another, Porter pointed out that it could make a big difference in where the emission limits are set.
The ceilings for lead and cadmium emissions using scrubbers and precipitators, he said, would be only half as stringent as the limits that could be achieved using scrubbers and baghouses.
Of about 130 large incinerators in the country, about one-third already have scrubbers and bag- houses, Porter said. But EPA officials have been troubled by the costs of putting new controls on existing incinerators, since municipalities will have to bear a large share of the burden.
Nationwide, the cost of new controls is estimated at $8 billion to $10 billion, he said.