No incinerator ban

March 30, 1992

Incinerators and recycling have been part of the American waste-management system since the late 1800s. The nation's first garbage incinerator was built on Governor's Island in New York in 1885. The nation's first rubbish-sorting plant for recycling was organized in New York City in 1898. Not until 1930 did New York City and Fresno, Calif., experiment with sanitary landfill technology.

This time line provides some perspective on Baltimore City's current debate over incinerators. Not only is burning garbage an essential element of any comprehensive waste management system, it is one of its cornerstones.

Yet the Baltimore City Council is considering a misguided bill that would impose "a five-year moratorium on the construction, reconstruction, alteration (other than pollution control measures), replacement and expansion of incinerators" within the city. Introduced by Councilman Perry Sfikas, the measure has attracted nine co-sponsors -- enough to make passage likely.

It is easy to understand how the Sfikas bill came about. For years, residents of East Baltimore have been fuming over the aging Pulaski incinerator, an inefficient and flawed piece of machinery that adds to the area's pollution. Hot tempers over the incinerator, in fact, were a key reason why John Cain and Mr. Sfikas last year were able to stage a political coup and oust two long-time incumbents from the City Council.

Anti-incinerator feelings were further galvanized when a Texas company recently said it wants to buy the Pulaski plant from a partnership headed by Willard Hackerman, which bought it from the city in 1981. With four years remaining in the city's contract with Pulaski, the Texans want to raze the old incinerator complex and build a bigger $200 million burning facility at the site.

Meanwhile, BRESCO, a second firm burning city garbage, argues that it alone could handle all municipal trash and that Pulaski is not needed at all.

In the next couple of years, Baltimore will have to make some tough decisions about its incineration requirements. Much will depend on the success of a citywide curbside recycling program that started recently. If the amount of trash requiring burning decreases dramatically, the city may indeed need little new capacity after 1996. On the other hand, it has a long-term contract to burn Baltimore County's trash that either has to be honored, circumvented or canceled.

A blanket ban on incinerators now would unnecessarily hinder the city's options in dealing with these complicated problems.

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