New incinerator proposal tempts council members

June 01, 1994|By Eric Siegel and Timothy B. Wheeler | Eric Siegel and Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writers

Construction magnate Willard Hackerman is making Baltimore an offer that seems too good to refuse.

He wants to tear down his polluting trash incinerator on Pulaski Highway and replace it with a larger, "state of the art" garbage burner that he says would solve the waste disposal headaches of the entire metropolitan area.

"This is a regional facility for waste management into the next century," Mr. Hackerman said.

But environmentalists, recycling advocates and leaders of communities near the incinerator warn that the city and the region -- not just trash -- would get burned.

They say that even modern incinerators release toxic material, and citizens cannot stand any more of this pollution. "The city's going to become the burning dump of the region," said Neil Seldman, director of a research organization that promotes alternatives to incineration.

Mr. Hackerman has not specified where the $300 million needed to build the waste-to-energy plant would come from. Nor does he have commitments for trash, though he hopes to get it from Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties and possibly Carroll.

But he promises to give the city $10 million plus an unspecified share of the revenue from the venture if the City Council approves it.

In cash-strapped Baltimore, Mr. Hackerman's proposal has turned heads at City Hall. The Schmoke administration supports it. And after intense lobbying, a majority of the City Council -- 10 of the 19 members -- co-sponsored a bill last month to lift a moratorium on incinerator construction.

Just two years ago, the council unanimously imposed the ban.

Tomorrow, the city planning commission will hold its second hearing in a week on the bill, and supporters are pushing to get it passed before the council adjourns in late June for the summer.

But opponents say that officials should take time to study the matter, since the city and the region both lack comprehensive plans for recycling and waste disposal. "To try to push it through is not fair to the people of the city," said 1st District Councilman Perry Sfikas, who represents areas near the incinerator.

The fact that the city is even considering Mr. Hackerman's proposal represents a turnabout. Five months ago, the two parties were in court, haggling over the terms of a waste-disposal contract to maintain the old incinerator.

A turnabout

Built 40 years ago, it sits in a compound behind a wire fence on Pulaski Highway, just west of I-95. Three black smokestacks rise from a complex of red brick and gray metal structures; trash-laden trucks rumble across the grounds.

In 1981, Mr. Hackerman bought the plant from the city for $41 million. In return, the city agreed to supply the facility with municipal garbage and to pay 85 percent of the operating costs.

The deal was struck when William Donald Schaefer, Mr. Hackerman's friend, was mayor. The contract came to be criticized as a sweetheart deal that cost the city millions. Mr. Schaefer was elected governor in 1986.

After Kurt L. Schmoke was elected mayor in 1987, the city tried to find a way out of the agreement. Mr. Hackerman offered to renegotiate if the city would let him build a new waste-to-energy plant there, but the City Council responded in 1992 with a five-year moratorium on incinerator construction.

Last December, when talks broke down, Mr. Hackerman filed suit, demanding that the city pay $75 million, much of it for overhauling the plant to reduce its air pollution. The city in turn threatened to condemn the property and turn it into a water treatment or recycling plant.

The legal sparring ended almost as soon as it started. In January, Mr. Hackerman agreed to drop his suit and let the city out of its contract.

Within weeks, Mr. Hackerman claimed in a letter to state environmental officials that the Schmoke administration had promised to back his plan to build a new incinerator.

Earlier this month, George G. Balog, director of public works, wrote to the City Council saying that the new facility was needed -- certification that was legally required before the council could consider lifting the incinerator moratorium.

Charges made

Opponents charge that the Schmoke administration backed the need for new incineration in exchange for Mr. Hackerman's decision to let the city out of the old contract, which officials claim was costing taxpayers $4 million a year.

Mr. Hackerman demurs on the charge, saying "I'd rather not answer that." Baltimore officials deny the charge and say they support the Hackerman plan on its own merits.

"My goal has been to get the city out of that [1981] agreement," Mayor Schmoke said. "My other goal was to see the current facility demolished."

Unlike the previous deal with Mr. Hackerman, Baltimore would not have to pay for upkeep of the new incinerator or send it any trash, city officials point out.

"This is a wonderful thing for the city," Mr. Hackerman said in an interview at the Towson offices of his construction firm, Whiting-Turner Contracting Co.

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