Trash-burning power plant in Fairfield fires debate

Environmentalists concerned about air pollution, recycling

June 27, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

A New York company's proposal to bring 200 badly needed "green jobs" to Baltimore by building a "renewable-energy" plant in the Fairfield area is drawing heat from — of all people — environmentalists.

That's because the 120-megawatt power plant planned by Energy Answers International of Albany would burn shredded municipal waste, tire chips, auto parts and demolition debris for fuel. Company officials argue the nearly $1 billion project will generate electricity and steam from waste that otherwise would fill up landfills. And it would be one of the cleanest facilities of its type in the nation, they say, with state-of-the-art pollution controls.

But activists argue the facility is still a glorified trash incinerator that would discourage recycling and spew hazardous pollutants into the nearby Brooklyn and Curtis Bay neighborhoods, which are already afflicted with some of the least healthy air in the state because of all the industry in the area. At least one environmental group has threatened to sue if the project gets a green light.

"Is this what Curtis Bay is going to be known for?" Dr. Gwen DuBois, a member of the Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility, asked at a public hearing on the project in late May. "We want good union jobs, but this is not green."

The project, to be financed in part by up to $300 million in federal stimulus funds, has won the backing of union leaders eager for the hundreds of jobs the company says the facility will create. It's also been endorsed by usually industry-wary community groups, wooed by the developer's promise of scholarships and up to $100,000 a year for improvements in neighborhoods long suffering from neglect and joblessness.

The proposed plant is being reviewed by the state Public Service Commission, which must approve any facility that would generate power to the electric grid. The commission has held a pair of hearings on the project and plans another one June 28 to review the facility's air-quality impacts.

"This is a very positive economic and environmental project," Patrick Mahoney, Energy Answers president, said at the hearing in Curtis Bay. He argued it would keep thousands of tons of waste out of landfills, reduce climate-warming greenhouse gases, help the state generate more of its power from renewable sources and produce environmentally friendly jobs.

The facility would also help recycle a shuttered factory, occupying a portion of the 90-acre waterfront site where FMC Corp. once manufactured ingredients for pesticides. That plant closed in 2008, and FMC has been working to clean up and contain toxic chemicals left behind in the soil and ground water.

Mahoney said the plant would employ up to 200 workers, and its construction would create work for 500 to 700 people. The company has pledged to recruit locally and to hire union labor.

"How can you argue that? This area needs jobs," said Michael Herd of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Local 193.

Carol Eshelman, executive director of the Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Coalition, said community leaders negotiated an agreement with Energy Answers that aims to spare residents some of the noise, dust and pollution from hundreds of trucks expected to haul in the processed refuse that the plant would be burning. The company pledged to route the truck traffic around their neighborhoods, she said.

It also has offered scholarships and $50,000 to $100,000 a year in donations for community improvements. The area has a park that lacks a single picnic table, Eshelman noted.

"We're going to have industry no matter what as our neighbors," she said, observing that the community has been living next to factories, fuel depots, coal piers and other industrial facilities for more than a century. "We want to do this in a right way."

Environmentalists argue, however, that the plant would be a detriment to the community, despite its economic attraction.

"Government and regulatory entities have been sold the idea that the modern trash incinerator is really a power plant," Andrew Galli, Maryland director for Clean Water Action, said at the hearing. The amount of energy produced by "waste to energy" facilities is much less than what could be saved by recycling, he argued — yet communities would be dissuaded from recycling because they would have to supply a certain volume of refuse to the plant.

Lawyers for the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington-based group representing other environmental organizations, noted that government records show industrial facilities in the area released more than 20 million pounds of hazardous air pollutants in 2008, and more than a third of all the particulates emitted in the entire state — dust and soot produced by combustion that can cause breathing and heart problems. The Brooklyn, Curtis Bay and Hawkins Point neighborhoods have one of the highest death rates for chronic lower respiratory disease in the city, the groups say.

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