Calling for study, Schmoke keeps incinerator on back burner

September 28, 1994|By Eric Siegel and JoAnna Daemmrich | Eric Siegel and JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writers

Efforts to lift Baltimore's incinerator moratorium and to pave the way for private construction of a $300 million waste-to-energy plant are now on a back burner.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who was pushing for an early end of the moratorium four months ago, now says the issue of incinerator construction must be studied along with the city's overall strategy for disposing of trash and solid waste.

The mayor cited plans by Baltimore County to ship some of its trash to a landfill outside of Maryland.

"It really undercuts the argument that there is a pressing or immediate regional need" for a new incinerator, Mr. Schmoke said.

The mayor's change of heart has handed a temporary victory to environmentalists and neighborhood groups -- and dealt a rare setback to one of the city's most politically connected developers.

It stalls the fast-track effort to end the moratorium -- and puts on hold the plans of developer Willard J. Hackerman to replace his polluting Pulaski Highway incinerator with the $300 million plant.

"The administration was trying to railroad the bill through City Council before summer recess. They knew delaying it until the fall would make it politically impossible to get through," said opponent Daniel Jerrems, head of the Baltimore Recycling Coalition.

"It makes a real public process out of a deal," said 1st District Councilman John L. Cain, who supported continuing the ban and who represents East Baltimore neighborhoods around the Pulaski site.

Last May, the Schmoke administration backed a City Council bill to prematurely end the five-year ban on incinerator construction enacted in 1992. The administration said the bill was needed to allow the city to fulfill agreements it had made to cooperate regionally on trash disposal.

The chief beneficiary of the bill was Mr. Hackerman, a construction magnate who had been trying for years to build a waste-to-energy plant at the site of his aging East Baltimore incinerator. Mr. Hackerman said the new plant would solve the region's solid waste problems into the next century and promised to pay the city $10 million if the moratorium were lifted.

But environmentalists, recycling advocates and Eastside community leaders immediately mounted a strong campaign against the proposal.

They warned that even a modern trash-burner would increase air pollution and harm the region's recycling efforts.

The bill won speedy approval by the city Planning Commission in June. But in a surprise maneuver, a majority of council members said the bill needed further study and refused to consider it before recessing for the summer.

At the opening of the council's fall session Monday night, 3rd District Democrat Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham introduced a resolution to study the city's long-range trash plans. It will be considered before any more review of the incinerator bill.

Mr. Hackerman, who was seated in the back of the council's chambers, declined comment on the effect of the delay on his plans, saying only, "You should know with rare exception do I speak to the media." Efforts to reach him yesterday were unsuccessful.

But last spring, in one of those rare exceptions, Mr. Hackerman said of the bill to lift the incinerator moratorium: "I would certainly hope it would pass before the council adjourns." He added: "I think it's very important to do it now."

Councilman Cunningham said the environmental committee he chairs is "not looking at the [incinerator] bill at all." He maintained that he wanted to take a comprehensive look at the city's trash problems all along and "where incineration fits in the plan."

As the city ponders the moratorium, a key possible supplier of fuel for the plant -- Baltimore County -- is making other plans.

The county is negotiating a five-year agreement with Waste Management Inc., a national waste disposal company, to take some of the county's trash to a landfill in Pennsylvania. "The odds of us having a contract in the next four to eight weeks are very good," Budget Director Fred Homan said yesterday.

But Mr. Homan stressed that Baltimore County considers the agreement only "an interim measure" rather than a permanent solution to its trash disposal needs.

Yesterday, even as they claimed a temporary victory, some opponents of lifting the moratorium said they were wary the bill could be revived.

"We saw some tricky maneuvers last time," said Dru Schmidt-Perks, director of Maryland Clean Water Action, adding, "It is not dead yet."

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