Baltimore Teens Take Out the Trash

Youth battle a waste incinerator.

Bruce Vail

To protest an incinerator project one mile from their high school, Baltimore students festoon a fence with flowers (Photo courtesy of United Workers).

In Cur­tis Bay, a neglect­ed water­front neigh­bor­hood at the south­west­ern fringes of Bal­ti­more, an alliance of envi­ron­men­tal activists and neigh­bor­hood groups — includ­ing an ener­getic and cre­ative band of high school stu­dents — has suc­ceed­ed in hold­ing off the con­struc­tion of an enor­mous trash incin­er­a­tor project.

It’s the threat of dangerous air pollution that has students at Curtis Bay’s Benjamin Franklin High School leaving the classroom and demonstrating in the streets of Baltimore.

The stu­dents wowed mem­bers of the Bal­ti­more Board of Edu­ca­tion this May with a pre­sen­ta­tion that mixed care­ful­ly researched envi­ron­men­tal and pub­lic health analy­sis with a hip-hop rou­tine that had board mem­bers up on their feet. Greg Sawtell, an orga­niz­er with Bal­ti­more-based Unit­ed Work­ers (one of sev­er­al orga­ni­za­tions allied against the incin­er­a­tor), says con­ver­sa­tions with school board mem­bers since then have left him opti­mistic that they will oppose the project.

Even though prepa­ra­tion work on the incin­er­a­tor began last year, full-scale con­struc­tion is stalled, and the pro­ject­ed com­ple­tion date has been pushed to 2016 from an ini­tial esti­mate of 2013. Oppo­nents are reluc­tant to claim sole cred­it for the delays, as there have also been financ­ing and reg­u­la­to­ry issues, but believe their efforts are sharp­en­ing scruti­ny and slow­ing progress.

Talk of the so-called trash-to-ener­gy incin­er­a­tor plant began some five years ago, after chem­i­cal man­u­fac­tur­er FMC Corp closed a pes­ti­cide plant, elim­i­nat­ing 130 jobs (includ­ing 71 union jobs with the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers) and leav­ing vacant a large par­cel of land zoned for heavy indus­try. The site strad­dles the Cur­tis Bay and Fair­field neigh­bor­hoods of the city, parts of which have large African-Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tions. To many polit­i­cal and com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers in this dein­dus­tri­al­ized and job-starved sec­tion of the city — which lies far from the famed Inner Har­bor or Fells Point enter­tain­ment dis­tricts — it seemed like a boon when Ener­gy Answers Inc., an Albany, New York-based pow­er devel­op­ment com­pa­ny, appeared on the scene to pro­pose a plant that would burn com­mer­cial and con­struc­tion waste to pro­duce elec­tric­i­ty. Ener­gy Answers billed the plant as a way to restore up to 200 jobs and pro­vide clean, low-cost ener­gy. The pro­pos­al came with enthu­si­as­tic endorse­ments from local polit­i­cal lead­ers, espe­cial­ly Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Malley and city May­or Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Ini­tial­ly, Ener­gy Answers strug­gled to find loans and missed a dead­line to secure fed­er­al stim­u­lus mon­ey. But in May 2011, the project got a big boost when O’Malley signed leg­is­la­tion to help make the plant prof­itable through a com­pli­cat­ed pol­lu­tion cred­its scheme that would fun­nel cash to Ener­gy Answers for gen­er­at­ing so-called clean pow­er. (A few days lat­er, Ener­gy Answers gave $100,000 in cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov­er­nors Asso­ci­a­tion, chaired by O’Malley.)

But for locals, the bloom was already com­ing off the rose. It had emerged that an esti­mat­ed 400 to 600 exhaust-spew­ing trucks car­ry­ing waste tires, met­als, plas­tics and con­struc­tion mate­ri­als would trav­el through the streets of Cur­tis Bay every day to feed the plant. The incin­er­a­tor itself would burn up to 4,000 tons of waste a day for decades— rais­ing even more alarm­ing pub­lic health con­cerns. In a recent Bal­ti­more Sun op-ed urg­ing can­cel­la­tion of the project, Gwen DuBois, of Chesa­peake Physi­cians for Social Respon­si­bil­i­ty, said the plant could emit diox­in, mer­cury and oth­er heavy met­als, which can cause can­cer and oth­er diseases.

What a lot of peo­ple don’t real­ize is just how dirty these plants real­ly are,” says Mike Ewall, founder and co-direc­tor of Ener­gy Jus­tice Net­work, a nation­al orga­ni­za­tion devot­ed to help­ing com­mu­ni­ties fight dirty ener­gy devel­op­ment. They are much worse than coal or any­thing else. And this would be the biggest such plant in the coun­try.” Cur­tis Bay is already the most pol­lut­ed zip code in Mary­land, Ewall notes, adding that low-income neigh­bor­hoods of col­or are often used as dump­ing grounds pre­cise­ly because they lack the polit­i­cal pow­er to fight back.

It’s the threat of dan­ger­ous air pol­lu­tion that has stu­dents at Cur­tis Bay’s Ben­jamin Franklin High School leav­ing the class­room and demon­strat­ing in the streets of Bal­ti­more. In their largest action, in late 2013, more than 100 pro­test­ers marched from the school to the site of the pro­posed incin­er­a­tor — just a mile away. A relat­ed peti­tion has gar­nered more than 2,000 signatures.

Recent Ben­jamin Franklin grad­u­ate Audrey Rozi­er is a leader of Free Your Voice, the stu­dent group agi­tat­ing to stop the incin­er­a­tor, as well as the co-author of a rap song devot­ed to the cam­paign. We have our rights accord­ing to the amend­ments / But why do we feel like we’ve been so resent­ed / Ignored, shoved to the side where opin­ions don’t mat­ter,” goes one verse.

Rozi­er says the song, which she has per­formed all over the city, has helped edu­cate the local com­mu­ni­ty and a broad­er Bal­ti­more audi­ence. What was amaz­ing to me in the begin­ning was that peo­ple out­side the com­mu­ni­ty were going to [build the incin­er­a­tor], but the peo­ple who live here didn’t know any­thing about it,” she says. I think that’s changed.”

That dis­con­nect between the polit­i­cal elite and the com­mu­ni­ties most affect­ed by its deci­sions is at the heart of the fight over the Cur­tis Bay incin­er­a­tor, says Sawtell. In Bal­ti­more and else­where, deci­sions on eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment poli­cies are made by a polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic elite with lit­tle or no input from the work­ing-class res­i­dents who must live day-to-day with the con­se­quences. Com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers we’ve talked to say no one asked their opin­ion before the project was announced,” says Sawtell. Some­how I think if it was the chil­dren of Gov. O’Malley, or the chil­dren of May­or Rawl­ings-Blake, who were going to be poi­soned, the deci­sion would be different.”

The cam­paign is draw­ing increas­ing sup­port, most recent­ly from the near­by Anne Arun­del Coun­ty chap­ter of the NAACP. Mean­while, enthu­si­asm for the plant among politi­cians seems to have cooled in the face of the protests, Sawtell says, with near-silence on the issue from May­or Rawl­ings-Blake in the past few years. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date for gov­er­nor in this year’s elec­tion, Antho­ny Brown, declined to take a position.

If the con­struc­tion delays are any indi­ca­tion, even Ener­gy Answers may be los­ing inter­est, although the com­pa­ny tells In These Times it’s in con­fi­den­tial dis­cus­sions for waste and ener­gy sales” and plans to pro­ceed with the project. Sawtell, how­ev­er, believes that a major push from oppo­nents now could kill the plan once and for all. 

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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