Maryland’s surge in WTE incinerators troubling

Waste-to-energy (WTE) incinerators are booming in Maryland, but a new report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) cautions that the energy produced is not truly renewable and that the trash incinerators generate significant mercury, lead, ash and other pollution. EIP, along with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) and Clean Water Action (CWA), is urging Maryland to tighten up its Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), which is now one of the most lenient in the nation as it relates to trash incinerators, after being recently loosened in a way that equates those facilities to solar and wind energy.

Although no incinerators were constructed in the entire country between 1996 and 2007, Maryland currently has at least three projects – the new Energy Answers plant in Baltimore City, the proposed expansion of the Harford County Resource Recovery Facility, in Harford County, and the proposed Frederick County Incinerator in Frederick County – under development. In addition, Maryland already has two WTE incinerators in Baltimore City and Dickerson.

Key EIP report findings include the following:

  • The WTE incinerators in Maryland examined for the report emit more pollution per hour of energy produced than each of Maryland’s four largest coal-fired power plants. These emissions include toxic pollutants such as mercury and lead that disproportionately harm children, even in small doses over time.
  • The WTE facilities produce ash in the combustion process that can be highly toxic and must be carefully tested to determine its toxicity and appropriate management.
  • Incinerators are extremely expensive to construct, often costing hundreds of millions of dollars to build and requiring substantial loans and tax credits.
  • Incineration provides fewer jobs and less economic benefits than other waste management options such as recycling and source reduction.

Environmental Integrity Project Research Analyst and report author Robbie Orvis said, “We are urging Maryland to reconsider the path it is on to become the trash incineration capital of the United States. If the proposed projects move forward, Maryland is currently on track to more than double its capacity to incinerate trash for energy use. Given the fact that this is being done inappropriately under the guise of ‘renewable energy’ and that it involves significant pollution, the state needs to take a second look at this now.”

CCAN director Mike Tidwell said, “Trash-burning facilities like the proposed Energy Answers plant add insult to injury because they emit more CO2 than coal, adding to the destruction of our fragile climate, while at the same time, detracting from Maryland’s investment in truly clean, renewable energy like wind and solar.”

EIP attorney Leah Kelly said, “From a waste management perspective, recycling is better for the environment and amount of energy used than incineration. Furthermore, a report by the Institute for Local Self Reliance estimates that per ton of waste managed, recycling generates 10 times more jobs than incineration does. Although Maryland has one of the highest recycling rates in the country, there is still room to improve its recycling programs, which will lower emissions to the environment, reduce energy use and create more jobs than incineration will.”

Maryland has recently reclassified WTE incinerators as Tier 1 renewables under the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard despite the fact that incinerators do not harness renewable energy. Rather, they rely on a fixed waste stream, typically consisting of thousands of tons of trash per day. This classification undermines the goal of the RPS and makes Maryland’s RPS one of the most lenient in the country with respect to WTE incinerators.

The EIP report recommends the following steps: Maryland should remove WTE incinerators from its RPS, invest further in recycling and source reduction programs, reconfigure its Clean Energy Production Tax Credit Program to better support and promote clean and renewable energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal energy, and increase its statewide pollution monitoring network to better understand new sources of pollution as well as trends in air quality.