Baltimore has violated federal civil rights law by failing to develop an adequate plan to end the city’s reliance on a massive trash incinerator, which spews harmful emissions over a cluster of low-income neighborhoods, according to a complaint filed this week with federal environmental regulators.

The complaint, filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, alleges that the Baltimore Department of Public Works has violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by failing to take steps to address the harms that the towering WIN Waste incinerator has had on several of South Baltimore’s predominately Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

The complaint homes in on the public works department’s 10-year roadmap, adopted by Mayor Brandon Scott in November and approved by state regulators earlier this year, outlining how Baltimore aims to transition to more sustainable means of waste disposal, like recycling and composting. Though the 10-year plan emphasizes Baltimore’s ambitions to wean itself off of incineration, it doesn’t go nearly far enough, advocates said at a Wednesday press conference at the feet of the incinerator smokestack.

The city’s plan is “replete with good intentions” said Taylor Lilley, an attorney with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, but it’s short on both action and specifics.

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Lilley’s organization, along with the Environmental Integrity Project, are representing the South Baltimore Community Land Trust in their complaint, which alleges that the incinerator has disproportionately harmed the nearby South Baltimore neighborhoods of Mount Winans, Cherry Hill, Lakeland, Brooklyn and Curtis Bay.

Approximately one-third of the waste picked up by Baltimore City haulers goes directly the WIN Waste incinerator, formerly known as BRESCO, accounting for only a fraction — around one-fifth in 2021 — of the waste processed there.

For years, Baltimore leaders have pledged to move away from their reliance on the facility. During Mayor Brandon Scott’s tenure on the City Council in 2019, the city passed a clean air law intended to force the incinerator to curb its emissions or shut down. Operators of the incinerator sued over the measure, and a federal judge ruled against the city in 2020, invalidating the law.

And though Scott promised before his 2020 mayoral election to end incineration at the WIN Waste facility, he backtracked to support extending a 10-year agreement between the city and incinerator after securing the Democratic nomination for mayor. Under that agreement, the city is contracted to send trash to the incinerator until 2031.

In a statement, the Department of Public Works said it is “aware” of the South Baltimore Community Land Trust’s complaint and prepared to work with EPA regulators if they pursue any assessment of the incinerator’s impact. Spokeswoman Jennifer Combs noted that the department’s 10-year solid waste plan drew on public input and pointed to the initiatives outlined in the plan designed to move the city away from polluting options like incineration and landfilling.

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WIN Waste, meanwhile, pointed to a 2019 study it commissioned that that found emissions from its facility have “negligible” impact on Baltimore air quality. The company highlighted $45 million it has recently invested into its air-quality control systems, which the company reported are in compliance with federal and state emissions limits.

The Baltimore incinerator is “among the lowest-emitting waste-to-energy facilities in the world,” spokesperson Mary Urban said, pointing to the benefits of processing waste for energy rather than sending it to landfills, which emit climate-warming methane gas as trash decomposes. While WIN Waste has invested in ways to clean up its operation, the company also pointed to a city analysis that determined phasing out incineration could saddle taxpayers with close to $100 million in costs for sending trash to the Quarantine Road landfill at the southern tip of the city.

Baltimore officials have participated in three different waste diversion plans in the last four years, each of which the complaint argues has marked an “incremental decline” in the city’s commitment to finding alternatives for incineration. The biggest step back came in the 10-year plan, which moves the goal posts on previous recycling targets and, ultimately, concludes that incineration at WIN Waste is likely to continue until other jurisdictions and companies rethink their reliance on incineration, too.

“This assertion attempts to divert responsibility for reducing operations at BRESCO at the feet of the waste disposal system as a whole and fails to recognize the very real implications of the City’s own contributions,” the complaint states.

At the same time, the 39-page complaint argues that the city has failed to take steps since finalizing its 10-year plan to demonstrate its commitment to alternatives or to investments in the kinds of infrastructure needed for a more compost and recycling-focused system.

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For one, the city once advocated against a state-designated renewable energy classification that has allowed the incinerator, the largest single source of emissions in Baltimore, to cash in on millions in tax credits. But in this year’s General Assembly session, the complaint states, Baltimore leaders backed away from that position, a step advocates say suggests a lack of commitment toward phasing out incineration that has “effectively prolonged harm” to the nearby neighborhoods.

And the Scott administration’s proposed budget for the next year, which city leaders must pass in the next month, invests almost no money in the infrastructure and resources to make good on its commitments. The city and Department of Public Works have also only laid out plans for a single composting facility, despite noting in the 10-year plan that multiple are needed in order to handle the volume of waste diversion from the facility.

The Baltimore RESCO trash incinerator is seen on May 29, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Speaking over the noise of waste haulers that rumbled into the WIN Waste facility Wednesday, Michael Middleton, a Cherry Hill resident and executive director of the SB7 Coalition, said South Baltimore residents are tired of being treated like “the armpit” of the city, forced to live with heavy industry and its pollution.

“Day after day, we inherit diseases and illness, respiratory-types of issues, all because of the existence of toxic fumes sprawling from BRESCO,” said Middleton. “There’s no need for this. Not in this day and age.”

A spokesperson for the EPA’s Region 3, which includes Maryland, did not respond to an inquiry about the complaint. Under the Title VI civil rights law, however, the EPA could halt federal funding provided to the Department of Public Works if regulators agree that the city is falling short of the law.

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Before moving forward with the requested investigation into harms from the incinerator, the EPA will likely first have to make a determination about whether the complaint falls into its jurisdiction, Lilley said.

Angela Smothers, a lifelong resident of the Mount Winans neighborhood near the incinerator and president of the community association, said many residents she knows suffer from illness and ailments they believe stem from the incinerator’s pollution. Smothers said she medicates daily to treat the cough she’s developed from years of breathing in air from the incinerator. She said Wednesday that she won’t sit by while her community continues to breathe in pollution.

“When you know better, you should do better,” she said.