Turning trash into energy Rubbish: Thousands of tons of discarded items are burned and become steam and electricity to power Baltimore.

March 18, 1997|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The first surprise about the world inside the window of Baltimore's trash burning plant is that the gigantic pit full of the city's debris doesn't smell to high heaven.

But then technology can be a wonderful thing.

"Dust, odors and diesel fumes are pulled and sucked into the system," said general manager Steven Tomczewski. "Our technology allows us to operate a facility in downtown Baltimore without negative noise and air impact to the commu- nity."

With its towering smokestack emblazoned with the city's name, this privately owned incinerator sits astride a spit of land overlooking the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. It is the destination for all manner of front-end loaders, compacters, roll-offs and green alley trucks. Together, they bring just over 2,000 tons of refuse each day.

The caravans carry their cargoes to be roasted in an elaborate system that few city dwellers dream about when they toss their trash each day. It is, in essence, machine over matter.

With its huge picture window offering glimpses to motorists on nearby freeways, not every city gets such a view of the room filled with its garbage.

"We're sort of in a bowl here," Tomczewski said. "There's tremendous visibility, and it's floodlighted at night. I look at it as sort of a theater."

But look inside the incinerator -- officially called BRESCO, short for Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co. -- for a more striking, lunar-like landscape of trash.

Picture a pit 100 feet deep, as long as a football field.

Two huge crane claws pick through the rubble, each lifting about three tons of trash into the hopper at a time.

Every day but Sunday, city, county and commercial trucks drop off tons of trash at the center: 500 deliveries a day, 700,000 tons a year.

Of that total, 280,000 tons comes from the city's collections; 90,000 tons from Baltimore County; and 330,000 tons collected by Browning-Ferris Industries, a commercial trash collector, from apartments, hotels, hospitals and other Baltimore businesses.

After truck drivers pass "Go" at the scale house, where their loads are weighed, they wave to Andre Smith, a keeper of the scales, and proceed to the tipping floor. "The whole idea is to move the trucks through the system quickly," said Tomczewski. "Flow is important."

A cheerful presence amid the refuse, Tomczewski grew up in East Baltimore in the shadow of the old Pulaski incinerator. He's a man who loves to tell stories about the trash the plant has processed, everything from a dead whale washed up in the Inner Harbor to 20 tons of marijuana confiscated by federal drug agents.

"You never know what people are going to throw away," he said. But, he added, "We have never found a body."

Dead whale

In 1989, the dead whale was cut into "people-sized pieces" before its flesh and blubber decomposed, Tomczewski said. After two years, the National Aquarium in Baltimore was given its fins, which "looked like dinosaur bones," he said.

Tomczewski, a chemical engineer, saw the $200 million facility being built and oversaw its opening in 1985. It has a monopoly contract with the city until 2006.

The key thing to know, he said, is that while trash is burned in an inferno of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, that's not the end of the line. Using trash as the fuel source, the plant transforms heat into steam and produces electricity in an ear-splitting turbine generator.

"The trash you threw away last night is lighting this room," Tomczewski said. "We supply a significant portion of energy for downtown Baltimore. [All] the steam we sell goes downtown."

BRESCO churns out enough electricity to supply a city of 50,000 households. Every hour it produces -- and it is processing round the clock -- energy equivalent to that in 600,000 100-watt light bulbs.

The facility also makes money by selling 20,000 tons of metal a year to scrap dealers and charging the city a "tip fee" of $41 a ton, according to the Department of Public Works.

"People really don't know what's going on inside this building," said Bob Schuman, the man running the control room panels alone one Wednesday morning. When members of the public take tours, he said, "They didn't know it's this involved."

The rows of red computer cabinets behind Schuman are the "brains of the operation," said Tomczewski. It takes only eight people to run the plant, so "obviously it is highly automated," he said. BRESCO employs 65 people, 60 of them in operations and maintenance.

A hot line and a flip of the switch connects BRESCO to Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. and Trigen, its two biggest customers.

To keep flue emissions cleaner, BRESCO uses an electrostatic precipitator. "If we were to shut off our electrostatic precipitator, you'd see a huge black cloud rising out of there," Tomczewski said.

Despite its high-tech approach, the company has its environmental critics.

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