South Baltimore Advocates File Civil Rights Complaint on Incinerator Pollution Threats

In the fight for environmental justice and cleaner air and water, advocates from South Baltimore have filed a civil rights complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on behalf of people suffering from pollution from Maryland’s largest trash incinerator. 

South Baltimore Community Land Trust (SBCLT), represented by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), filed a Title VI administration complaint on May 28 regarding the Baltimore City Department of Public Works’ (DPW) 10-year solid waste management plan

The complaint states that DPW failed to adequately plan a transition away from reliance on the highly polluting municipal waste incinerator called the Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Company (BRESCO), formerly known as the Wheelabrator. This contributes to the unequal health risks faced by people living in the Mt. Winans, Westport, Cherry Hill, Lakeland, Brooklyn and Curtis Bay neighborhoods.

"As someone raised in Cherry Hill who now suffers from an incurable lung disease as a result of air pollution, I am hopeful that our call for a just transition away from burning trash in our communities is finally heard and acted upon. I don’t want another generation to have to grow up worried about the air they breathe,” said Cherry Hill resident Cleo Walker.

Shashawnda Campbell, Environmental Justice Director for SBCLT said, “We’ve already seen our three former neighboring communities of Fairfield, Wagner's and Hawkins Point be involuntarily displaced because of city planning decisions to concentrate more and more polluting waste infrastructure in South Baltimore.”  

“Residents tireless organizing over the past decade has led to our officials promising they’ll do everything they can to end trash incineration and build new zero waste infrastructure, but we still aren’t seeing it where it counts—in policy and budgets,” Campbell said. “We are taking this action now because residents of South Baltimore have a right to finally live free from air polluted by burning trash.” 

Located in one of Baltimore’s most disadvantaged communities, BRESCO is the largest stationary source of industrial air pollution in Baltimore. People living nearby face health risks from the facility’s air emissions, which include mercury, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and fine particulate matter. These emissions contribute to respiratory issues, heart conditions, and other serious health problems. 

“Way too many of my family members and classmates at Ben Franklin High School suffer from asthma and other respiratory problems made worse by air pollution,” said Carlos Sanchez-Gonzalez of SBCLT. “I’m proud to be able to commit my life to solving this problem of how to get our city to break its addiction to funding trash incineration because it will mean a better future for my community of Lakeland and all my friends and neighbors from across South Baltimore.” 

BRESCO’s emissions cost Maryland and neighboring states $55 million in human health problems annually, according to a 2017 study commissioned by CBF. The study concludes that living near the incinerator is similar to living with a smoker, at least for some children, senior citizens, and others with sensitive lungs.

Residents also describe heavy truck traffic carrying trash into the incinerator and waste ash out to the Quarantine Road Landfill, which is a large emitter of methane, a pollutant driving climate change, and has a history of water quality violations. 

“Even though our youth and community members have literally created a zero-waste plan and started businesses to prove we can do it, our city gave us another 10-year solid waste plan that will keep putting the same environmental injustice on us here in South Baltimore,” said lifelong Mt. Winans resident Angela Smothers. “I won’t continue to sit by while my friends and neighbors suffer from so many health issues worsened by having that giant white smoke stack standing over us spitting out toxins into the places we love the most.” 

The air pollution eventually falls down and pollutes waterways. Based on 2011 emissions data, BRESCO’s NOx emissions deposited an average of 6,570 pounds per year of nitrogen pollution directly into the Chesapeake Bay. Excess nitrogen in the Bay fuels harmful algal blooms that can lead to low-oxygen dead zones. These emissions make it harder for Maryland to meet requirements to reduce pollution to the Bay, putting the burden on taxpayers rather than the polluting facility. 

Members of SCBLT have led zero-waste initiatives to reduce the amount of trash that must be burned or sent to landfills. Their work includes advocating for a city compost facility and challenging a new incinerator in Fairfield in 2009, which would have been the largest incinerator in the nation. The group holds the City of Baltimore accountable for its zero-waste commitments, which are not currently prioritized in DPW’s solid waste plan.

After DPW announced its intent to develop a 10-year solid waste plan in 2023, the agency held a multi-phase public comment process and received over 700 comments. SBCLT and many others cited the need for specific, measurable strategies that would effectively transition the city away from incineration at BRESCO.

However, DPW’s waste plan, which went into effect in early 2024, fails to chart a clear path away from the incinerator. 

The Title VI complaint addresses the unequal risks experienced in the neighborhoods of Cherry Hill, Brooklyn, Curtis Bay, Lakeland, Westport, and Mt. Winans. Each of these communities is categorized as disadvantaged by the White House Council on Environmental Quality’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, indicating they’re above the 90th percentile for environmental burdens. 

The Title VI complaint is intended to halt federal funding for entities engaged in discriminatory practices—in this case, Baltimore DPW. EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office may choose to either reject or accept the complaint for further investigation.

CBF was one of two organizations representing SBCLT in the complaint. 

“Baltimore’s 10-year solid waste management plan completely disregards the pervasive environmental injustices suffered by the people of South Baltimore. EPA must investigate,” said Taylor Lilley, CBF Environmental Justice Staff Attorney. “South Baltimore’s environmental justice status reflects the high concentration of harmful activities in the area—not only BRESCO’s waste incineration, but landfill operations, wastewater treatment, coal transfer activities, and more.”

EIP is also representing SBCLT.

“Trash incinerators and landfills produce unacceptable levels of toxic and climate-harming pollution and they are often sited in marginalized communities,” said Leah Kelly, a Senior Attorney with EIP. “We cannot continue relying on these facilities as our primary waste disposal options, as Baltimore City has in this plan. We must plan a transition to better alternatives; that is part of what South Baltimore residents are seeking in this complaint.”  

Kenny Fletcher 90x110

Kenny Fletcher

Director of Communications and Media Relations, CBF

[email protected]

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