The operator of South Baltimore’s medical waste incinerator has agreed to pay a $1.75 million fine following an investigation by the Maryland attorney general that revealed the plant’s former owner routinely violated state environmental laws by knowingly disposing of partially burned and improperly treated biohazardous materials.
Attorney General Anthony Brown announced Curtis Bay Energy’s guilty plea and sentencing Tuesday outside its Hawkins Point plant at the southern tip of Baltimore. Brown called the fine one of the largest for an environmental crime in the history of his office and outlined how the company willfully skirted environmental laws in an effort to burn more waste and drive higher profits.
In an agreement struck in May of this year, officials with Curtis Bay Energy pleaded guilty to 40 counts of violating Maryland environmental regulations, including failures to properly treat and dispose of the potentially infectious waste it handled, failures to adequately staff its South Baltimore plant, and failures to prevent leakage of waste during transport to a Virginia landfill.
The $1.75 million sum includes a $1 million penalty paid into the Maryland Clean Water Fund and $750,000 for an environmental fund for sustainability projects by local community groups, to be managed by the Chesapeake Bay Trust.
“It is what the previous owner of Curtis Bay Energy didn’t do when they received this special medical waste that was most egregious,” said Brown, who spoke at the plant alongside state investigators, environmental officials and Mayor Brandon Scott. “The persistent, improper treatment of special medical waste created a clear and obvious threat to public health.”
In addition to the criminal penalty against Curtis Bay Energy, the attorney general’s office reached a plea agreement with the company’s former director of operations, Kenneth T. Jackson, who investigators say knowingly proceeded with waste disposal violations and at times directed employees to commit them. Jackson was order to pay $30,000 in fines and faces three years of supervised probation. A two-year prison sentence was suspended.
Charges against a second former employee of the company are still pending.
State investigators began looking to Curtis Bay Energy on a tip in November of 2019, under the tenure of former Attorney General Brian Frosh, and officials say the company did not come into compliance with environmental regulations until March of 2020, after learning of the state probe.
One of the largest medical waste incinerators in the country, Curtis Bay Energy typically disposes of ”red bag” biohazardous materials that carry risks for disease transmission — from public and private sources in multiple states and Canada. In early 2021, the company came under new ownership when the California-based Aurora Capital Partners acquired it from Summer Street Capital Partners, a New York-based hedge fund, the Maryland Daily Record reported at the time.
Because medical incinerators handle potentially biohazardous and infectious materials, state environmental regulations require that they burn all processed waste down to a fine ash before transporting it to a standard landfill.
But when state investigators began looking into Curtis Bay Energy four years ago, they found that operators of the South Baltimore plant were regularly loading partially burned biohazardous materials into trucks and transporting them for disposal to the King George Landfill in Virginia.
Employees at Curtis Bay Energy were aware of the issues and reported them to management, the state investigation found, and in at least some instances, plant managers instructed staff to overload incinerators in order to process waste faster. Logbooks filed by plant employees documented unburned or partially burned waste — referring to the material as “raw,” “bad,” and “uncooked” — on 83 different dates.
In a statement, Curtis Bay Energy said it has fully cooperated with the state investigation and pointed to its new ownership.
“Since acquiring the company, new ownership and facility management have significantly increased investments in plant equipment, personnel, process improvements and training,” the company said through representative Kelly Love. “Curtis Bay Energy remains committed to increasing its investment for preventative maintenance and workforce training and to honor its place in the community and region.”
In two instances described in the company’s plea agreement, state investigators tailed trucks transporting medical waste from Curtis Bay Energy to the Virginia landfill, reporting that the trucks leaked fluid for the entire drive and “covered the agents’ cars and windshields with an unknown substance.”
In another instance, a load of waste ash being transported to the landfill caught fire and burned through its transport container.
Investigators also arranged with King George landfill to observe waste dropped off by Curtis Bay Energy and found unburned plastics, paper, red disposal bags, medical gloves, pill bottles and “biological material,” according to court records. At several points in early 2020, loads of partially burned waste were rejected by the Virginia landfill because of the recognizable medical parts mixed in with the ash.
All of this was done “in an attempt to process waste more quickly,” said Katie Dorian, chief of the state criminal investigations unit. Records indicate that the volume of waste processed by Curtis Bay Energy rose from 24,192 tons in 2018 to over 30,000 tons the following year, even as labor costs declined significantly.
The Curtis Bay Energy plant has operated since the early 1990s in Hawkins Point, part of an industrial area of South Baltimore that also includes the city’s landfill and is near the residential community of Curtis Bay.
Scott touted Tuesday’s announcement as a win for frontline communities and a step towards restoring the local environment, saying “the days of folks just being able to do what they want to do in South Baltimore are over.”
“This incinerator is just one of many environmental injustices this community has had to face,” the mayor said. “Today is a win for our residents whose rights and peace of mind have been compromised. It is a win for the environmental justice movement because it proves that these kinds of outcomes are possible.”
State officials said Tuesday that they are unaware of any illness caused by improper waste disposal at the Curtis Bay facility.
Environment Secretary Serena McIlwain said the Maryland environmental department has doubled down on inspections at the Hawkins Point plant in response to the investigation and touted enforcement steps by her agency to hold industrial polluters accountable for violating their permits.
Through its spokesperson, Curtis Bay Energy said it has been subject to both routine and unannounced inspections since new ownership took over in 2021 and has spent more on compliance.
Aside from the disposal violations highlighted in the state’s criminal case, the South Baltimore plant has been cited numerous times over the years for more minor infractions.
In 2004, a group of residents pushed for the plant’s closure following a run of violations for mercury pollution, The Baltimore Sun reported at the time. Between 2012 and 2022, state environmental regulators alleged air pollution infractions against the plant on four occasions, resulting in settlements totaling $126,000 as well as $75,000 towards an environmental projects fund, according to information provided Tuesday by the Maryland Department of the Environment.
State regulators also settled solid waste penalties against the company in 2011 and 2012 for $5,000 each.
In a statement, the South Baltimore Community Land Trust called on hospitals and other medical institutions in the region to immediately sever ties with the medical waste facility. The land trust, which formed out of opposition to plans that would have sited a trash incinerator in its community, has advocated against other industrial pollution sources in South Baltimore. It’s also among the organizations that called on Gov. Wes Moore to declare an air pollution emergency in Curtis Bay — an appeal the community group reports was declined.
“We cannot stand idly by while medical institutions, entrusted with the sacred duty of healing, send their waste to our community, threatening the health and well-being of our residents,” said Greg Sawtell, an environmental justice organizer with the land trust.
In addition to counts of improperly disposing medical waste, the state found that for months Curtis Bay Energy, at the direction of Jackson, used an unpermitted sump pump and hose to discharge wastewater from a condenser unit onto an adjacent property in an effort to divert the fluid from stormwater drains down the road where it had been flowing.
The attorney general’s tipster told investigators that state agents were intentionally delayed during a site visit in 2019 while Curtis Bay Energy employees removed the unpermitted hose — which ran through the woods and out a fence to discharge onto adjacent land — concealing it until after officials left.
When investigators confronted Jackson about the discharge line early the next year, the operator at first denied any knowledge, before eventually confessing to the conduct and agreeing to stop discharging onto the neighboring property.
And while Curtis Bay Energy was only permitted to use four acres in Hawkins Point, aerial photographs taken during the state investigation found the company’s operation was spilling onto two additional acres. Photos indicated that the company was using those parcels, owned by Baltimore City, as a parking area for trucks containing medical waste before offloading them for treatment.
The article has been updated to state that the fine imposed on Curtis Bay Energy is one of the largest for an environmental crime in the history of the Maryland attorney general's office.