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A historic city landmark and its controversy on environmental justice in South Baltimore

By Charlee Douglas with SGJC Student News Network

BALTIMORE, M.D. — As thousands of cars pass one of Baltimore’s landmarks off I-95, many view the tall landmark noting that they are near downtown. Often seen from Ravens fans going to M&T Stadium for a game, traveling to work or even just visiting family in South Baltimore.

However, what surrounds the landmark that lets you know you're in Baltimore, is the environmental impact it has on the city’s air quality.

Being the largest source of air pollution in the state of Maryland, the Bresco Incinerator burns nearly 2,500 tons of trash every day.

Image Credit: Gene Sweeney Jr., The Baltimore Sun

Since 1985, Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Company, also known as Bresco, ranks as the tenth-largest waste incinerator in the United States, responsible for 36% of Baltimore City's air pollutants.

The communities in South Baltimore such as Brooklyn, Cherry Hill and Curtis Bay are nearly adjacent to Bresco and additional city industries that result in long-term health issues.

“We know that it results in higher asthma rates because of all of the emissions that come out of the pipe, but then also has a huge impact on climate change,” said Councilman Mark Conway of District 4. “And if there’s one place to start, that would probably be our greatest place to start [Bresco Incinerator].”

Conway’s work since being on the council has revolved around environmental policy and addressing the socioeconomic and racial divide in the city.

“We want to think as intelligently as we can about how we manage our trash and we know that it is very expensive to put things into public landfills,” said Conway.

In an early March city council meeting, members of the Baltimore City Council advocated for House Bill 166, the Reclaim Renewable Energy Act.

This act entails working on ending renewable energy from incinerators such as Bresco.

With Conway spearheading this bill with other district representatives, he says he would rather see sustainable solutions such as more recycling and composting.

District leaders are looking for safer alternative ways for sources of renewable energy. This process includes a “zero-waste” plan to reduce trash burning, maintain employment, and improve air quality.

Inside the incinerator are units where specific trash is dropped off. After, it searches through the waste from cranes to see what is safe and unsafe to place inside the incinerator.

Each unit, also known as a hopper, is made up of trash that is dumped into a furnace from a crane, from using a boiler and an air pollution control system. This then causes a cycle motion of the material inside the furnace that moves the waste through the unit, resulting in combustion.

Both nitrogen oxides are released by BRESCO. Nitrogen oxides is an atmospheric pollutant that contributes to ozone pollution when it combines with sunlight and explosive, organic compounds.

“I see it almost everyday going to work, but I never really knew what was in the stuff that it was letting out,” said South Baltimore resident, Layla Dowery.

Dowry has been a resident of Cherry Hill neighborhood since 2005, after moving from Montgomery County where she was born, the home of another waste incinerator in Maryland.

“I always knew there was a smell and one day I asked my mother what it was and she told me, ‘that’s where the trash goes’” said Dowery. “Personally, it has not impacted my health, but I know children in the community suffer from asthma solely because of it.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Screen, neighborhoods such as Cherry Hill, Brooklyn and Curtis Bay are in the 95th percentile of toxic air quality released.

Another type of air pollution is particulate matter, which is created when liquid and solid particles combine in the atmosphere. The health of people could be harmed by either of these contaminants.

“When the trucks go by, it is dust galore,” says Westport resident Dasia Fields. “You wipe our table right now, you got dust all over your hands, it just makes your hands feel dirty.”

Knowing those whose health is impacted by the incinerator and other industrial work done in South Baltimore, Fields has seen how this has impacted the community.

Each day the incinerator is said to release toxic chemicals such as mercury, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides.

According to the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, South Baltimore respiratory health has the highest asthma-related hospitalization rates in Baltimore and higher respiratory risk from toxic air pollution.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also states that almost $55 million per year are spent treating community health concerns from Bresco's operation.

However, Bresco is not the first incinerator that South Baltimore has experienced.

The Reedbird Landfill was a 118-acre site in South Baltimore near Potee Street where many Black families resided. Now known as the Cherry Hill neighborhood, it was torn down in 1976, while nearly a decade later the Bresco Incinerator was built.

Credit: Environmental Protection Agency

Impacts from pollutants have been a complaint from residents since the beginning about moving out to South Baltimore.

Madeline Wheeler Murphy, a matriarch and advocate for the Cherry Hill neighborhood wrote a letter to the editor in 1962 for The Baltimore Sun. She later served on the first Board of the Baltimore City Poverty Program and the Baltimore City Community Action Commission.

Her work consisted of demanding better conditions for Black families, specifically placed in public housing in the affected areas of pollution and environmental justice.

“The decision to build African American housing for families right next to an incinerator was not an accident,” said Brad Rogers, Executive Director of the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership.

“Any number of things which will be an incredible, positive usage for this site, if the incinerator were to go away and we want to draw everybody’s attention into that fact,” said Rogers. “So they don’t think it’s an incinerator or nothing – it’s an incinerator or really, really positive high impact, economic development potential.”

Since the beginning of September 2023, the house bill to propose alternative ways of dealing with trash, over time, has made its way to Annapolis for state legislators.

Current community organizations have bought House Bill 166 to Annapolis. From drafting it from 2023, the Maryland General Assembly website states it consists of “for purposes of excluding energy derived from waste and refusing from being eligible for inclusion in the renewable energy portfolio standard.”

The official filing of this bill takes place October 1, 2024.

Charlee Douglas Bresco Incinerator Podcast

By Charlee Douglas

With Contributions from:

The Baltimore Sun

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The Washington Post

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Chesapeake Climate Action Network

Photos, The Baltimore Sun, Environmental Protection Agency, Charlee Douglas

Video, Charlee Douglas

Audio, Charlee Douglas


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