Wheelabrator paid $77,500 last year to state for mercury emissions in Baltimore
by Sherry Greenfield
The company that will operate a $527-million incinerator in Frederick County was forced to pay a $77,500-penalty to the state last year for its failure to control mercury emissions released from its South Baltimore plant, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Wheelabrator Technologies Inc., a New Hampshire-based company, agreed on Dec. 12, 2011, to pay the fine after the MDE said the plant on Russell Street violated air-pollution laws in two separate incidents.
The Baltimore incinerator, which opened in 1985, burns up to 2,250 tons of trash per day. At full capacity, the plant can generate more than 60,000 kilowatt-hours of electrical energy per hour, which is the equivalent of supplying electricity to 68,000 Maryland homes.
Wheelabrator has contracted with Whiting-Turner of Baltimore to build a similar “waste-to-energy” facility in Frederick County that will burn trash to produce electricity. Construction is expected to begin in 2013, with the facility expected to open in 2015.
“We have worked closely with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) at our Baltimore facility since 1985 to maintain an excellent environmental track record and to ensure compliance with stringent state environmental standards,” Melissa Lohnes, a communications spokeswoman with Wheelabrator, wrote in an email.
“Our Baltimore facility has an excellent compliance history, and operates in a manner fully protective of public health and the environment. The matter we settled with MDE was self-reported to the agency, immediately addressed, and the facility continues to meet its regulatory requirements,” she said.
The first incident occurred on May 23, 2009, when the power was inadvertently shut off to the system that prevents mercury emissions from escaping from the incinerator, according to Samantha Kappalman, director of communications with the MDE.
“It happened over an eight-hour period of time, and the next person who came in realized it and turned it back on,” Kappalman said.
The second incident occurred on April 22, 2010, during an annual test of the incinerator’s smokestack. In that case, the test showed that the mercury released from the waste-to-energy plant exceeded its allowable limit.
Kappalman said that in both incidents Wheelabrator reported the violations to the MDE. There was no threat to the public’s safety, she said.
Mercury is a hazardous material emitted into the air by coal-burning plants and trash incinerators from their smokestacks. Mercury has been known to damage the developing brains of children, affecting their ability to learn. It can also damage the human nervous system in adults and too much can affect vision, hearing and speech.
The mercury released into the air from the Baltimore incinerator was slightly over the allowed limit set by the state, Kappalman said. The limited amount of mercury allowed by state regulators is 50 units. The average for the Baltimore incinerator after three tests registered at 54.7 units.
Lohnes said everything is being done to ensure that the Frederick waste-to-energy facility will “incorporate state-of-the-art quality control equipment and will be subject to environmental standards and permit conditions, which are among the strictest in the nation.”
Wheelabrator operates 17 incinerators in the country, including Baltimore.
The company agreed last year to pay $7.5 million to settle a state lawsuit in Massachusetts for violating the Clean Water Act by improperly disposing of contaminated sludge and wastewater at its plants in Millbury and Saugus and that it violated the Hazardous Waste Management Act by improperly treating and disposing of ash at its plants in Saugus and North Andover.
Frederick County Board of Commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young (R) said he is aware of the two incidents at Wheelabrator’s Baltimore incinerator, but is not concerned. Young said he feels “comfortable” with the company operating an incinerator in the county.
“We are going to make sure that the public is protected,” he said.
Young said he is pleased that Wheelabrator reported both incidents to the MDE.
“That’s the moral of the story,” he said.
But opponents of the incinerator have argued for several years that any amount of mercury released from the smokestack will be harmful to the environment and the public.
“Wheelabrator has a history of violations and fines in various communities,” former county Commissioner Kai J. Hagen said in an e-mail. “And some of them were willful, and sustained, and cannot be dismissed as inevitable or occasional accidents.”
As a commissioner on the previous board, Hagen fought against the incinerator. He has been a leading opponent against the project.
“I would be concerned about the emissions even if there were no violations, since the standards are not adequate for certain heavy metals and other toxins, and are non-existent for others,” Hagen wrote. “An example of the latter is the absence of good standards for the ultra-fine particles that will be emitted in substantial amounts, all the time.”
Caroline Eader, a longtime outspoken opponent of the incinerator, said in an e-mail that Wheelabrator has a questionable history.
“Wheelabrator has demonstrated a pattern of violating environmental laws and should not be trusted to self-monitor what is released into the air we breath and the water we use,” Eader wrote. “Wheelabrator's assurances are worthless — its history of environmental violations proves it.”
Meanwhile, MDE has yet to complete the permitting stage of the project. When permits regulating air quality are complete, the state agency will hold a public hearing that will allow residents to offer their response.
No date for the hearing has been set, Kappalman said.
The agency held a public hearing last month on the incinerator’s water permits. If granted, the permit would allow the facility to release water into the Potomac River. To obtain the permit, the facility would be subject to water-quality regulations, as well as monitoring and reporting requirements for its discharge.
The regulations would limit the amounts of residual chlorine, suspended solids, nitrogen and phosphorous in the water, as well as its temperature and the pH of the water released. Pollutants that will be monitored include mercury, copper and zinc.
The incinerator has been a long-planned project between Frederick and Carroll counties. It is estimated to cost $527 million to build, with Frederick’s share set at $316 million — about 60 percent — with Carroll County picking up the remainder.
The incinerator would be big enough to burn 1,500 tons of trash per day. As it burns trash, the plant will also produce 45 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 45,000 homes in the county.
It will be built at the McKinney Industrial Center, south of the city of Frederick and next to the county’s wastewater treatment plant off Buckeystown Pike.