Pollution-Weary Students Stage a March to Protest Incinerator

Photo by: Fern Shen

Photo by: Fern Shen

by Fern Shen / Baltimore Brew

Students rallying against a trash incinerator planned in their South Baltimore neighborhood said researching and organizing was important. But talking to fellow residents made it plain to them how sick their neighborhood really was from pollution-linked disease.

“One person said a neighbor three doors down had just died of asthma,” said Charles Graham, a senior at Benjamin Franklin High School who canvassed the streets of Curtis Bay and Brooklyn on weekends.

“We asked the students in one class how many had asthma and everyone’s hand went up!” said Destiny Watford, 18, a Towson University student who lives in the community, where rowhouses are just blocks away from heavy industry.

Their remarks came as the students prepared yesterday for a protest march with United Workers and Unite Here Local 7.

Despite the depressing public health news and social justice insights (“This was completely disrespectful to the community – nobody knew about it, they hadn’t been told!”), Graham said he has enjoyed the experience.

The students, who formed Free Your Voice (a 20-member human rights committee of United Workers), made the group’s website andFacebook page, wrote letters to public officials and collected photos, as well as signatures for a unique “photo petition.” (They have close to 2,000 signatures so far. You can see the photos on the website.) They met door-to-door with over 200 community members.

Over time, Graham said, he came to believe that he and fellow students could have an impact.

“It has felt,” he said with a smile, “sort of empowering.”

Burning Tires, Car Parts, Wood Waste, Trash

The protesters were going to walk to the site – a former chemical plant less than a mile from their school – where Energy Answers wants to build the 160-megawatt trash-to-energy Fairfield Renewable Energy Power Plant.

“Let’s show Energy Answers, the governor and everyone else that we’re not going to take it,” Watford said. “Let’s show them that Curtis Bay is not a dumping ground.”

English teacher Kelly Klinefelter Lee also addressed the gathering of about 200 people in the school auditorium, saying she was proud of the students. “There is much to object to. . . mercury and lead and greenhouse gasses,” she said. “These students already breath some of the dirtiest air in the state and their young bodies  bear a terrible price.”

Accompanying the students were a number of city civil rights and environmental activists, including David Flores, of Bluewater Baltimore, the new baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper.

He noted that the state of Maryland recently “petitioned EPA to take measures to control air pollution in states upwind of Maryland” and yet now supports “what is slated to be the largest trash-burning incinerator in the country.” He said the irony makes the incinerator project “an environmental justice issue” for this impoverished part of the city.

At this point, the Martin O’Malley administration appears ready to let the project proceed.

Opponents have been battling state utility and environmental officials over the estimated $1 billion project for the last four years.Designed to generate power by burning refuse, tires, wood waste, car parts and other material, the plant would, according to Energy Answers, provide 180 jobs and meet or exceed air quality standards. Environmentalists say it would severely harm the health of an area that is already burdened with the highest levels of toxic pollution in the state.

The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) has said the emissions of particulates, lead and other harmful substances would be within the legal limits. Environmental advocates say regulations have tightened since the plant was approved by the Maryland Public Service Commission in 2010.

Key Construction Deadline

Local and national environmental groups say Energy Answers failed to meet an August 6 construction deadline and that the lapse should have cost the company the “Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity” it was issued by the PSC.

In August, the company said they did do some work onsite and had met the deadline.

But in an Aug. 22 letter asking MDE to investigate, the Environmental Integrity Project said the company had not engaged in significant construction activity on time, that its Baltimore city building permits had expired and that according to “an eyewitness account. . . as of August 21, 2013, no pilings had been installed at the site.”

MDE never replied to their letter requesting a detailed written determination as to whether the company complied, said Environmental Integrity Project attorney Leah Kelly, speaking with The Brew yesterday.

MDE spokesman Jay Apperson offered this response to our query.“The short answer is, we have not found the company to be in violation of the requirement to have started construction by the required time,” he said. (Here is his full statement.)

“Like a Moldy Basement”

When it came time for the march on a frosty December day, the group spilled out onto East Patapsco Avenue, marching behind a school shuttle bus, protected from rumbling traffic by adults with reflective vests and monitored from above by what appears to have been a police helicopter.

The group passed under a banner draped on an overpass that said, “Stop the Incinerator.”

From the road, looking through the chain-link, barbed-wire-topped fence, there didn’t appear to be any construction or other activity at the site.

The group stopped in front of a sign that read, “Future Home of the Fairfield Renewable Energy Power Plant.”

Charles Graham, 18, said the level of pollution in his neighborhood struck him after he had been living out of state for a while and came back.

“The whole place smelled like a moldy basement filled with plastic,” he said.

He wound up with a quote from the 1940 Charlie Chaplain movie, The Great Dictator: “We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.”

Luis Larin, of United Workers, explained why they left flowers twined in the chain link fence. “These flowers are ‘green.’ This plant is not ‘green.’”

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