Residents who live near Baltimore's industrial underbelly voiced overwhelming support last night for a bill imposing a five-year moratorium on the construction of incinerators in the city.
At a packed City Council hearing on the bill, supporters said a moratorium is needed to give city officials time to sort out Baltimore's trash-disposal needs and to encourage recycling. They also said they were tired of their neighborhoods being used as a dumping ground for the region.
"Why not think about what is best for Baltimore?" asked Margaret Johnson, a fifth-grader at Brehms Lane Elementary School. "More recycling. Less incineration."
Margaret was joined by Benjamin Lefstein, a fellow student at Brehms Lane, who drew loud applause when he read an essay saying that recycling is the environmentally preferable alternative to incineration, a process he described as poisonous.
"Recycling will never become a reality in Baltimore if incinerator capacity is increased," added Billie Mitchell, president of the Highlandtown Community Association.
While most private citizens who spoke or submitted testimony last night supported the moratorium, the proposal was panned by industry experts, incinerator operators, the state Department of the Environment and the Schmoke administration -- all of whom said a moratorium would needlessly limit the city's options for trash disposal.
"I am opposed to the bill because I believe that it represents an unwise and potentially damaging approach to environmental management for the city of Baltimore and the metropolitan region," said M. Gordon Wolman, a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University.
In addition, the city Law Department says the bill is illegal because it interferes with the powers of the director of public works to make decisions on waste disposal. That power is given to him in the City Charter, the opinion says.
But angry council members -- a majority of whom have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill -- brushed aside that legal argument.
"It is my opinion that this opinion is a cop-out," said Councilman John L. Cain, D-1st.
The city's health and finance departments also sent letters opposing the measure.
Another opponent was Willard Hackerman, owner of the aging Pulaski Incinerator, an East Baltimore trash-burning plant that has been the site of numerous pollution violations and the focus of long-standing community ire.
Mr. Hackerman wants to sell the incinerator to American Ref-Fuel, a Texas firm that proposes to demolish it and build a $200 million waste-to-energy plant on the site. He said the terms of that deal -- including the amount of trash the city would be obligated to truck to the plant -- are negotiable.
The city already has rejected an initial proposal that would have required it to bring 175,000 tons of trash a year to the plant, said George G. Balog, public works director.
Mr. Hackerman said that a new plant would be environmentally sound, save the city from paying $40 million to build new pollution controls at the Pulaski plant and create the incineration capacity the city will need going into the next century.
The city pays 85 percent of the operating costs and capital improvements at the Pulaski Incinerator, under a deal Mr. Hackerman struck when he bought the plant from the city in 1981.
"There is no question that this is a bad bill," Mr. Hackerman said. "Recycling and [the Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co. plant on Russell Street] cannot accommodate the area's trash disposal needs."
But Dan Jerrems, chairman of the Baltimore Recycling Coalition, said his group opposes a new incinerator.
"A new incinerator would do one of two things," he said. "It would either kill recycling in the region or it would import out-of-state waste. Neither option is acceptable to the people of Baltimore."