Baltimore Teenagers take out the Garbage

Youth battle a waste incinerator.

At Curtis Bay, a failed waterfront neighborhood in the northwestern fringes of Baltimore, an alliance of environmental activists and neighborhood groups–such as an energetic and inventive band of high school students–has succeeded in holding off the construction of an great trash incinerator project.

The students wowed members of the Baltimore Board of Education this May with a presentation that combined carefully researched public and environmental health evaluation with a hip routine that’d board members up on their own feet. Greg Sawtell, a secretary with Baltimore-based United Workers (among several organizations allied against the incinerator), states talks with faculty board members since have left him optimistic that they will oppose the job.

although planning work on the incinerator started last year, full-scale construction is postponed, and the projected completion date has been pushed to 2016 from a first estimate of 2013. Opponents are reluctant to claim sole credit for the flaws, as there also have been financing and regulatory issues, but consider their efforts are sharpening scrutiny and slowing progress.

Talk of the so-called trash-to-energy incinerator plant started some five years ago, after chemical manufacturer FMC Corp closed a pesticide plant, eliminating 130 jobs (such as 71 union projects with the United Steelworkers) and leaving empty a large parcel of land zoned for heavy industry. The website straddles the Curtis Bay and Fairfield neighborhoods of the city, elements of which have large African inhabitants. 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 Replies Inc., an Albany, New York-based power development firm, emerged on the scene to indicate a plant that would burn commercial and construction waste to generate electricity. Energy Replies billed the plant for a means to restore around 200 occupations and supply clean, energy.

Initially, Energy Answers struggled to find loans missed a deadline to procure national stimulus money. But in May 2011, the job got a big boost when O’Malley signed legislation to help make the plant profitable through a complex pollution credits scheme that would funnel cash to Energy Replies for generating so-called clean power.

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 nourish the plant. The incinerator itself would burn around 4,000 tons of waste a day for a long time — raising even more alarming public health issues.

“What lots of folks do not realize is just how dirty these plants really are,” states Mike Ewall, founder and co-director of Energy Justice Network, a nationwide organization devoted to helping communities fight dirty energy growth. “They are much worse than coal or anything else. And this would be the biggest such plant in the nation.” Curtis Bay is currently the very polluted zip code in Maryland, Ewall notes, including that low-income neighborhoods of colour are usually used as dumping grounds just because they lack the political power to fight back. In their biggest action, in late 2013, more than 100 protesters marched from the college to the website of their proposed incinerator–just a mile away. A related petition has garnered more than 2,000 signatures.

Present Benjamin Franklin grad Audrey Rozier is a leader of Free Your Voice, the pupil group intends to block the incinerator, as well as the co-author of a rap song dedicated to the campaign. “We’ve got our rights based on the amendments / But why do we feel like we have been so resented / Ignored, pushed to the side where opinions do not matter,” goes one verse.

Rozier says the song, which she has performed all over the city, has helped teach the local community and a wider Baltimore audience. “What was amazing to me at the start was that individuals outside the community were going to [construct the incinerator], but the men and women who live here didn’t know anything about it,” she states. “I believe that is changed.”

That disconnect between the political elite as well as the communities affected by its own decisions is at the core of the fight within the Curtis Bay incinerator, states Sawtell. In Baltimore and elsewhere, decisions on economic growth policies are produced by a political and economic elite with little or no input from the working residents who have to live daily with all the consequences. “Community members we have talked to say no one asked their opinion before the project was announced,” states Sawtell. “I believe if it was the children of Gov. O’Malley, or even the children of Mayor Rawlings-Blake, that were going to become 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, excitement for the plant one of politicians seems to have chilled in the face of the protests, Sawtell states, with near-silence on the problem from Mayor Rawlings-Blake at the past few years. The Democratic candidate for governor in this year’s election, Anthony Brown, declined to take a position.

in the event the construction delays are any indication, even Energy Replies could be losing attention, although the business tells In These Times it is in”confidential discussions for energy and waste revenue” and intends to proceed with the undertaking. Sawtell, however, believes that a significant push from opponents now could kill the program once and for all.

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.



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