Residents prevail in incinerator fight Community: Despite setbacks and years of strife, neighbors in Armistead Gardens waged a successful battle to close an aging trash-burning plant.

January 06, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

They felt alone for the longest time, the hamlet of Armistead Gardens vs. the aging trash-burning plant less than a mile away; ordinary folks sick of a horizon that always looked gray, tired of the slimy soot that wafted their way from the Pulaski Incinerator.

For years the fight was against City Hall. In 1981, when Baltimore sold the trash-burning plant to Willard J. Hackerman, residents had to battle the wealth and influence of the Whiting-Turning Construction Co. owner.

It is amazing to the people of Armistead Gardens and their supporters that the little people seem to have won: Hackerman says he's ready to demolish the 41-year-old incinerator and donate the land to the communities that hounded him.

Along the way, the fight against the incinerator picked up support from environmentalists, politicians and hundreds of residents in Belair-Edison, Rosedale, Beverly Hills, and other neighborhoods along the U.S. 40 corridor.

"We started to fight before people were environmentally astute," says Peggy Kirk, 73, a board member of the Armistead co-op that runs the 1,500 family neighborhood near Erdman Avenue. "When we won the five-year moratorium against it in 1992, we thought, 'Success!' And then Hackerman got it overturned in court and and we were down in the mouth -- Hackerman had won again. But at the very end of last year's General Assembly, the legislature voted you couldn't have a trash burning plant within a mile of a school."

It is no coincidence that five schools are within a mile of the Pulaski Incinerator. The bill was sponsored by Del. Peter A. Hammen and Sen. Perry Sfikas, East Baltimore Democrats. Of the other 104 incinerators in Maryland, not one is within a mile of a school.

"I'm very proud, very glad that it looks like it's going to end well," said Virgie Woodfin, 74, an Armistead board member for the past 20 years. "I'm trying not to have any fears, but I want to see action."

The first action will be to test the soil and ground water to see how badly the decades of heavy use -- going back at least to the turn of the century when the city dumped coal ashes there -- have contaminated the site. Baltimore Development Corp. intends to hire a firm to deliver test results in about five weeks.

The nonprofit Southeast Development Inc. will decide if it wants to accept rights to the 11-acre site from Hackerman, who has a 75-year-lease on the property. Hackerman could not be reached for comment last night.

Asked about the tax break that Hackerman is said to be seeking in exchange for the donation, Sfikas said: "Until we know what it costs to clean the site up, to give this man a huge tax break and a huge cleanup at the public's expense is unconscionable. I think he wants to remove an albatross from his neck, at the least expense."

"We've had so many victories snatched away, it's truly hard to believe there's not going to be another chapter in this fight," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, local program director for Clean Water Action.

"The residents are the ones who motivated the rest of us, who got us to fight with them. It was the citizens who turned out by the hundreds night after night," Schmidt-Perkins said. "I remember packed rooms at the Shrine of the Little Flower on Belair Road after the moratorium was overturned in '96 and Hackerman wanted to build a bigger incinerator there. They came out on work nights with their kids at the back of the room doing homework. People from all economic backgrounds saying they didn't want the incinerator Hackerman had and they didn't want him building a bigger one."

Terry J. Harris of the Sierra Club and the city's League of Environmental Voters also worked on the environmental end of the fight, supplying background on the effects of the incinerator, which in 1995 was said by the state to be failing to meet environmental consent orders.

"It's such a wonderful story," said Harris. "The enviros couldn't have done it without the neighborhoods and the neighborhoods couldn't have done it without the legislators. When friends like Sfikas and [1st District City Councilman John L.] Cain got elected, it gave us hope and we worked like hell. All of a sudden, the citizens had the upper hand.

"It's remarkable," he mused. "To go from an incinerator belching slimy smoke to the incinerator site being turned over to the neighborhoods who hated it the most."

Pub Date: 1/06/98

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