The City Council gave preliminary approval last night to a bill that would prohibit the construction or expansion of incinerators for five years -- a measure that would effectively kill plans for a new waste-to-energy plant on the site of the troubled Pulaski Incinerator in East Baltimore.
The council passed the incinerator measure after securing the support of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who initially opposed the moratorium as being too restrictive.
That concern was eased when the council amended the bill to allow the public works director to petition the council for permission to allow new incinerator construction if a trash-disposal "emergency" develops.
"Our concern with the bill initially was that it would put us in a legal straight jacket," said Peter N. Marudas, an aide to Mr. Schmoke. "The amendment changed that."
The Schmoke administration has been poised to close the Pulaski Incinerator, a trash-burning plant where there have been numerous pollution violations and which has long been the focus of community ire.
Public Works Director George G. Balog has received a preliminary report from an appraiser helping the city prepare for possible condemnation proceedings on the incinerator.
He said the preliminary appraisal showed that the antiquated plant has only a "salvage" value of about $1 million.
"If we condemn, we get out of the whole thing," Mr. Balog said. "But we won't make a final decision on that for at least a month."
Because of federal clean-air requirements, the city faces the possibility of paying $40 million to build new pollution controls at the Pulaski plant.
The city pays 85 percent of the operating costs and capital improvements at the incinerator under a deal that construction magnate Willard Hackerman struck when he bought the plant from the city in 1981.
The contract Mr. Hackerman signed with the city expires in 1996.
City officials say they believe that if the plant is condemned the city will be out of the contract.
Using the contract as a lever, Mr. Hackerman had asked the city to approve a $200 million waste-to-energy plant to replace the Pulaski burner.
The incinerator moratorium bill would effectively kill that plan, which was developed by a Texas firm.
The City Council legislation, which could go to a final vote as soon as Thursday, also would -- plans to expand the Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co. waste-to-energy plant on Russell Street.
The moratorium and plans to condemn Pulaski could have a serious impact on Baltimore County, which burns 115,000 tons of trash a year at Pulaski under a contract with the city.
One consultant has said that the rate at which Baltimore County pays the city for disposal of the trash -- which is burned at Pulaski -- does not come close to covering the city's costs.
"In the future, the county will have the burden to dispose of it," Mr. Balog said.
"We've been meeting with the county. And for years we have accommodated the county with their solid waste. Lately, we have been discussing a plan where they would dispose of their solid waste without relying on the city."
The council's action was greeted enthusiastically yesterday by environmental activists, who had supported the moratorium measure and pressured the mayor to back it.
"This is a tremendous victory," said a smiling Dan Jerrems, chair of the Baltimore Recycling Coalition. "The mayor realizes that this is an issue that the people support strongly."
Councilman Perry Sfikas, D-1st, lead sponsor of the legislation, was also elated.
"The community groups and environmentalists really did their homework," he said.