The trash incinerator that towers over I-95 as motorists drive in or out of Baltimore has a reputation for spoiling the air and spewing out toxic chemicals and had been identified as the largest single source of pollution in the city.

But upgrades made to the incinerator, now operated by the company WIN Waste Innovations, could challenge that reputation. Last summer the company completed $45 million worth of upgrades that will better control emissions, according to trade publication Waste Dive.

While those upgrades put the facility ahead of the curve of newly proposed pollution regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, some say it’s not enough to clear the air in Baltimore.

The incinerator in south Baltimore’s Westport neighborhood burns 2,250 tons of trash each day, and produces enough electricity to power more than 31,000 homes annually, according to the company. It’s been in operation since the mid-‘80s.

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What EPA is proposing

In January this year, the EPA said it wanted to strengthen Clean Air Act standards for large facilities that burn trash. If the stricter standards are finalized, EPA says, they would remove about 14,000 tons of pollution from the air per year.

“President Biden believes every person deserves clean air to breathe and the opportunity to lead a healthy life, and EPA’s proposal is just the latest action to achieve this vision,“ EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “By reducing harmful pollution and improving air quality, this rule will also advance environmental justice for nearby communities already overburdened with pollution.”

The regulations would target nine pollutants and require operators to limit the amount of emissions of each. The targeted pollutants are: particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, lead, cadmium, mercury and dioxins/furans.

If approved, the EPA rules would apply to two facilities in Maryland — the WIN Waste incinerator in Baltimore and the Montgomery County Resource Recovery Facility, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

But there’s been an indication the Montgomery County facility could close before the regulations come into effect, Jay Apperson, a spokesman for MDE, said in an email. A Montgomery County spokesperson confirmed the county is phasing out “the incinerator as part of a comprehensive approach to waste management.”

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Maryland’s existing regulations may already be more stringent than EPA’s proposed rules, according to Apperson, meaning the Baltimore facility could already be in compliance for most of the nine pollutants. MDE thinks the EPA regulations would be more stringent on mercury and cadmium emissions.

“These requirements would provide additional health protections to Marylanders, including those in overburdened communities near the facilities,” Apperson said in an email.

Mary Urban, a spokeswoman for WIN Waste, said the company was confident the upgrades it made last summer would allow it to be in compliance with the proposed EPA standards.

However, Urban said in an email, the EPA should be cautious in conducting its rule review to avoid “unintended environmental or public health consequences,” either by “diverting scarce public resources” from other environmental and public health work.

“Specifically, the lack of a residual risk review could create a need in some parts of the country to transport larger quantities of waste to distant landfills using fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, exhausting regional landfill space ahead of schedule and increasing harmful methane emissions,” Urban wrote.

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Trucking trash around does come with legitimate environmental concerns. Emissions from vehicles driving on highways can contribute to poor air quality and climate change through the emission of greenhouse gases.

Some trash in Maryland is trucked as far away as Virginia.

Are emissions restrictions enough?

To state the obvious: Limiting the amount of pollution that’s emitted from a facility does not completely eliminate all pollution.

Limits imposed by regulations — even while based in science — are not a “line of demarcation that indicates safe and healthy conditions versus unsafe and unhealthy conditions,” said Chris Hennigan, a professor in the Department of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“Just because we are in compliance with the standard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push for improvements,” he said.

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There are well-understood health effects from exposure to the pollutants from incinerators like the one in Baltimore. This is especially true of particulate matter, the term for a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air, according to the EPA.

The smokestack of a waste-to-energy incinerator is seen near Interstate 95. The incinerator is located in the Westport neighborhood of Baltimore. (EVA CLAIRE HAMBACH/AFP via Getty Images)

Particulate matter can enter a person’s lungs and bloodstream and has been linked to multiple health concerns, including decreased lung function, irregular heartbeat and premature death.

Meleny Thomas, the executive director of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, said in an email she did not think filtration improvements or stricter emissions requirements are “enough until the hazardous emissions are not existent.”

Nicole Fabricant, an anthropology professor at Towson University who has been part of youth advocacy around clean air in Baltimore (and written a book on the topic), said that even with new emissions restrictions, communities in the city are “overburdened by industry.”

“This is not the way to deal with our trash,” she said. Rather than “reformist” moves like tightening regulations around what can be emitted, Fabricant said, Maryland and other jurisdictions should move away from incinerating waste entirely.

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It’s an issue that should concern everyone, not just those who live closest to the incinerator, she said.

“You can’t just cut this off,” Fabricant said. “It’s the air. It’s just like waterways are connected. Our ecosystems are all intimately connected.”

Cody Boteler a reporter on The Banner’s Express Desk, reporting on breaking news, trending stories and interesting things in and around Baltimore. His work has appeared in The Baltimore Sun, USA TODAY, Baltimore magazine and others. 

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