A judge ruled in favor of Baltimore’s zoning board and its decision to approve the installation of a crematorium at Vaughn Greene Funeral Services in North Baltimore.

Nearly 10 months after a hearing on the board’s decision, the judge agreed the proposed crematorium will not have adverse health effects that would go “above and beyond” other similar sources of emissions.

The crematorium still needs approval from the Maryland Department of the Environment. Vaughn Greene Funeral Services had to submit an air permit application with the state agency, which could not take next steps with the application until the judge’s decision was made.

The Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals voted 3-1 in October 2021 to give the funeral home permission to install a crematorium in Winston-Govans.

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Neighbors petitioned and challenged the decision in Baltimore City Circuit Court. They previously argued the zoning board didn’t provide enough evidence about the adverse effects of a crematorium in an area that has an elevated level of asthma and heart and lung conditions. Lawyers for both sides presented their arguments to a judge in July 2022.

That same month, residents rallied outside of the funeral home, hoping to raise awareness about the proposed crematorium. Residents are concerned about toxic pollutants including dioxins, furans, mercury, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter that can affect the heart and lungs.

The proposed crematorium would include a 40-foot-tall exhaust flue enclosed in a bell-tower-like structure, according to court documents. The zoning board imposed several conditions for the installation of the crematorium, including that only human remains from funeral homes owned and operated by Vaughn Greene Funeral Services can be cremated on the property; teeth containing mercury must be removed prior to cremation; and federal, state and local laws must be complied with. The funeral home currently operates four locations in the Baltimore area.

Cindy Camp, a Govans resident and community activist, said she was surprised that the process has “dragged on.” She is dissatisfied with the ruling and thinks her side of the neighborhood is often forgotten about.

“As far as I am concerned, my trust in the court system has died,” she said.

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Camp added that “poverty shouldn’t be a death sentence” and said she would like to see more studies done on crematorium emissions.

Residents in White Marsh are opposing the construction of a new funeral home in the 11000 block of Philadelphia Road, which would include a crematorium. In addition to concerns about emissions, an online petition points out that the proposed site is adjacent to residences, day care facilities and a church.

Currently, there are limited studies that show links between crematorium emissions and adverse health effects.

Juliette O’Keeffe with the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health previously told The Banner she found no studies that showed “causal links” between crematorium emissions and adverse health effects. O’Keeffe pointed to the absence of emissions data and ambient air quality monitoring near installations limits.

The Maryland General Assembly considered a bill that would have required the Maryland Department of the Environment, Maryland Department of Health and the Maryland Department of Labor to conduct a study of the environmental and public health impacts of post-death services in the state, but it did not make it out of the Senate.

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Lisa Polyak, who lives in Homeland and supported the petition, said she thinks the judge’s decision is “a terrible idea,” and she’s looking to the community about what to do next. She emphasized that the air quality in the area is already bad.

A representative from Vaughn Greene Funeral Services said the company is in the process of preparing a statement about the judge’s recent decision. In a past statement, the funeral home said its request to operate a crematory is “the direct result of increased market demand.” There were nearly 1.6 million cremations in the U.S. and 203,045 in Canada in 2019, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

Andrea LeWinter, the pro bono lawyer for the petitioners, said her clients have a right to appeal the decision with the Appellate Court of Maryland within 30 days of the decision.

jasmine.vaughn@thebaltimorebanner.com

Jasmine Vaughn-Hall is a neighborhood and community reporter at the Baltimore Banner, covering the people, challenges, and solutions within West Baltimore. Have a tip about something happening in your community? Taco recommendations? Call or text Jasmine at 443-608-8983.

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