Residents have banded together to oppose a human crematorium at Vaughn Greene Funeral Services on York Road.

When Pastor Stevie Thompson saw the yellow and black “No Human Crematorium” signs in his Wilson Park neighborhood, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to mind.

“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” the civil rights leader once said.

It was a guiding message for Thompson, who recently joined residents in the 4900 block of York Road to demonstrate in front of Vaughn Greene Funeral Services, which wants to add a crematorium to the property.

Thompson, like other residents, doesn’t think it’s necessary in their neighborhood, with some worrying the crematorium could be an environmental and health hazard. The residents have been in a battle to stop the crematorium from coming for over a year.

“I’m not against cremation. We just don’t need it here,” he said, mentioning that he keeps an urn of his brother’s ashes on his desk.

The Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals voted 3-1 last October to give the funeral home permission to install a crematorium. Neighbors petitioned and challenged the decision in Baltimore City Circuit Court. Lawyers for both sides presented their arguments to a judge last week.

The petition argues that 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.

“BMZA really did a disservice by not explaining how they came to their conclusion,” said Andrea LeWinter, a pro bono lawyer for the petitioners.

The judge is reviewing the petition and LeWinter said there are other appeal options if petitioners disagree with the ruling.

Govans residents aren’t alone in their concerns about air pollution and potential harm to public health a crematorium might cause. Residents from Alabama to North Carolina have raised similar concerns. More complaints could mount as the demand for cremations increases. There were 1.6 million cremations in the U.S. and 203,045 in Canada in 2019, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

Demand, Vaughn Greene Funeral Services wrote in a statement, weighed on their efforts to get permission to operate a crematory.

“Vaughn Greene Funeral Services has tremendous respect for the community we serve,” the statement said. “Our request to operate a crematory is the direct result of increased market demand. The appropriate parties have all the relevant information — and we look forward to their decision.”

Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the cremation association, said there’s a misperception that crematories aren’t regulated.

“It’s actually highly regulated at the state level through the issuance of air permits [and] at the local level through the zoning,” she said.

But the petition by Govans residents raises issues with how crematoriums are regulated in Maryland. Residents worry about the zoning board’s reliance on the Maryland Department of Environment to make a determination about public health impacts through their air permit process, which Vaughn Greene had to apply for.

In a statement, the environment department said a permit “applicant must demonstrate that the crematory meets applicable state opacity and particulate matter emissions limits and that the concentration of each air pollutant emitted from the facility will be below the level determined by state regulation to be protective of public health.”

Combustion processes, or the burning of bodies and other objects, bring concerns about toxic pollutants including dioxins, furans, mercury, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter that can affect the heart and lungs.

However, in a 2020 field inquiry addressing crematoria emissions and air quality impacts, Juliette O’Keeffe with the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health found no studies that showed “causal links” between crematorium emissions and adverse health effects.

But, she noted, the absence of emissions data and ambient air quality monitoring near installations limits the ability to assess exposures and health impacts. Her report included less than a dozen available studies of emissions levels from crematoria pollutants, mostly international and one in Virginia.

“Once a facility is running, determining the short- and long-term health and environmental impacts is complicated, as it depends on the type of pollutant and the dose being received over the short [and] long term for a sensitive receptor (e.g., a child), and separating these out from other environmental exposures,” she said.

After the hearing, Dave Arndt of Locust Point said he was taken aback by comments made about health outcomes. Specifically, the city’s Chief Solicitor Thomas Webb’s mention that the health outcomes in the area that surround the proposed crematorium are not unique and are similar to many areas in the city.

“For me that is one of those big red flags of just accepting that we have to have environmental injustice,” Arndt said.

Until a decision is made, the the state’s environment department cannot take next steps with Vaughn Greene’s air permit application.

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