Baltimore teens take out the Garbage

Youth battle a waste incinerator.

It is the threat of dangerous air pollution that has pupils at Curtis Bay’s Benjamin Franklin High School leaving the classroom and showing in the streets of Baltimore.

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

The pupils wowed members of the Baltimore Board of Education this May with a demonstration that mixed closely researched public and environmental health evaluation with a hip-hop pattern that’d board members around their feet. Greg Sawtell, a secretary with Baltimore-based United Workers (among many organizations allied against the incinerator), says conversations with faculty board members because have left him optimistic that they will oppose the project.

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 delays, as there also have been financing and regulatory problems, but believe their efforts are sharpening scrutiny and slowing progress.

Discuss of the so-called trash-to-energy incinerator plant started some five years back, after chemical manufacturer FMC Corp closed a pesticide plant, eliminating 130 jobs (such as 71 union jobs with the United Steelworkers) and leaving empty a sizable parcel of property zoned for heavy industry. The website straddles the Curtis Bay and Fairfield areas of the city, elements of which have large African inhabitants. To many political and community leaders in this deindustrialized and job-starved part of the city–which is located far from the famed Inner Harbor or Fells Point entertainment districts–it seemed like a boon when Energy Answers Inc., an Albany, New York-based power development company, appeared on the scene to propose a plant that would burn construction and commercial waste to produce electricity. Energy Answers billed the plant as a means to restore up to 200 occupations and supply clean, low-cost energy.

Initially, Energy Answers fought to find loans and missed a deadline to procure national stimulus money. However, in May 2011, the project got a big boost when O’Malley signed legislation to help make the plant profitable through a complicated pollution credits scheme that would funnel money to Energy Answers for producing so-called clean electricity. (A couple of days after, Energy Answers gave $100,000 in campaign contributions to the Democratic Governors Association, chaired by O’Malley.)

However, for locals, the bloom was already coming from the rose. It had emerged that an estimated 400 to 600 exhaust-spewing trucks carrying waste tires, plastics, plastics and construction materials would travel throughout the roads of Curtis Bay every day to feed the plant. The incinerator itself will burn up to 4,000 tons of waste each day for a long time — increasing more erratic public health issues. In a recent Baltimore Sun op-ed urging cancellation of the project, Gwen DuBois, of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility, said the plant can emit dioxin, mercury and other heavy metals, which can cause cancer and other ailments.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is just how filthy these plants actually are,” says Mike Ewall, founder and co-director of Energy Justice Network, a nationwide organization devoted to assisting communities fight dirty energy development. “They are much worse than coal or anything else. And this would be the biggest such plant in the country.” Curtis Bay is already the very polluted zip code in Maryland, Ewall notes, including that low-income areas of color are often used as dumping grounds just because they lack the political power to fight back.

It is the threat of dangerous air pollution which has pupils at Curtis Bay’s Benjamin Franklin High School leaving the classroom and demonstrating in the streets of Baltimore. In their biggest action, in late 2013, over 100 protesters marched from the school to the website of their proposed incinerator–just a mile off. A connected petition has garnered over 2,000 signatures.

Recent Benjamin Franklin graduate Audrey Rozier is a leader of Free Your Voice, the pupil group intends to block the incinerator, in addition to the co-author of a vampire song devoted to the effort. “We’ve got our rights according to the changes / But do we feel like we have been resented / Ignored, pushed to the side by which opinions don’t matter,” goes one verse.

Rozier says that the song, which she has played all over the city, has helped educate the local community and also a wider Baltimore audience. “What was amazing to me at the start was that people outside the community were likely to [build the incinerator], but the men and women who live here did not understand anything about it,” she says. “I believe that is changed.”

That disconnect between the political elite as well as the communities affected by its decisions is at the heart of the fight over the Curtis Bay incinerator, says Sawtell. In Baltimore and elsewhere, decisions on economic development policies are produced by a political and economic elite with little if any input from the working residents who have to live day-to-day with the consequences. “Community members we have talked to say nobody asked their opinion before the project was announced,” says Sawtell. “I think when it was that the kids of Gov. O’Malley, or even the kids of Mayor Rawlings-Blake, who were likely to be poisoned, the choice would be different.” Meanwhile, the excitement for the plant one of politicians appears to have cooled in the face of the protests, Sawtell says, with near-silence on the issue from Mayor Rawlings-Blake at the past couple of years.

If the construction delays are any indication, even Energy Answers may be losing interest, even though the business tells In These Times it’s in”confidential discussions for energy and waste revenue” and plans to continue with the project. Sawtell, however, believes that a major drive from competitions now could kill the plan once and for all.

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.