Hackerman sues city over Pulaski incinerator

December 25, 1993|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer Staff Writer Joan Jacobson contributed to this article.

The owner of the Pulaski Highway incinerator has filed suit against Baltimore, charging that the city is preventing him from fixing air pollution violations at the aging East Baltimore plant or replacing it with a new $200 million trash-to-energy facility.

The suit, filed Wednesday in Baltimore County Circuit Court in Towson, triggered an unusual public tiff between city officials and Willard Hackerman, the politically connected businessman and philanthropist who bought the incinerator from the city in 1981 in what has since been criticized as a sweetheart deal.

The Pulaski Co., Mr. Hackerman's firm, seeks $75 million from the city, contending that the city has breached the 1981 contract under which he bought the incinerator.

Under that deal, amended in 1985, the city agreed to pay 85 percent of the incinerator's operating costs, at least through 1996. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and other city officials have since said that the incinerator is outdated and inefficient, calling the Hackerman contract a financial drain that has cost the city millions.

City officials and Mr. Hackerman have been negotiating for a year, ever since the City Council imposed a five-year moratorium on incinerator construction to block his plans for a new trash-to-energy plant on the Pulaski site. Mr. Hackerman, president of Whiting-Turner Construction Co., issued a news release saying that he filed suit because city officials recently broke off talks about replacing the incinerator.

"I am personally hurt by the city's actions, in that they would shut the door after negotiations seemed to be coming to a positive conclusion," said Mr. Hackerman, who originally paid $41 million for the incinerator.

Specifics of suit

The suit contends that the city owes Pulaski $3.2 million in tipping fees to cover the incinerator's operating expenses and says that the city should pay $60 million to retrofit the plant to control its pollution.

City officials declined comment on the lawsuit, but Charles S. Fax, a private lawyer hired by the city to negotiate with Mr. Hackerman, issued a statement accusing the incinerator owner of putting his private interests ahead of the city's.

"The negotiations fell through because in our opinion the terms upon which Mr. Hackerman insisted were unreasonable and unfair to the citizens of Baltimore," Mr. Fax said.

Mr. Fax said that he advised Mr. Hackerman's lawyer last week that the city was nearing a decision to condemn the incinerator "in the interests of the neighborhood and the entire city." He would not say what plans the city had for the property.

The lawsuit is the latest development in a controversy that began more than a year ago, when the Maryland Department of the Environment cited the 38-year-old incinerator for air pollution violations.

The firm paid $40,000 in fines, according to Merrilyn Zaw-Mon, the state air management administrator.

Under the incinerator contract, however, the city is obligated to pay 85 percent of any costs of complying with environmental laws and regulations, including penalties.

Emission limits exceeded

The incinerator continues to violate emission limits, but has been allowed to keep operating under a consent agreement that requires renovations and other improvements to control pollution April 1994, said Ms. Zaw-Mon.

She said state officials believe the incinerator will have to be torn down and rebuilt to comply with those and other new pollution limits required by the 1990 federal Clean Air Act.

The suit says that the city refused last year to pay Pulaski for upgrading the incinerator to comply with the state's order.

Mr. Hackerman then offered to replace the old incinerator with a new, larger trash-to-energy plant, which he offered to finance on his own in return for a new long-term garbage-disposal contract. But, amid public pressure to close the incinerator, the City Council in August 1992 barred any construction, reconstruction, replacement or expansion for five years.

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