A state delegate is asking the Maryland Department of the Environment not to issue some environmental permits needed to build a controversial waste-to-energy incinerator in Frederick County until a vigorous and complete evaluation is completed.
Del. Michael Hough (R-Dist. 3B) of Brunswick has sent a letter to the MDE asking the agency to withhold air-control permits because of concerns that if large amounts of mercury are released from the incinerator’s smokestack, it will be harmful to residents living near the planned facility.
In his Sept. 7 letter, Hough addressed the fines paid by Wheelabrator Technologies Inc. — the New Hampshire-based company that will operate the facility which will burn trash to produce electricity — for its failure to control mercury emissions released from its South Baltimore plant.
As reported in The Gazette on Sept. 6, the company was forced to pay a $77,500 penalty to the MDE last year.
The company also 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. It also violated the Hazardous Waste Management Act by improperly treating and disposing of ash at its plants in Saugus and North Andover.
“As elected delegate from southern Frederick County, I cannot sit back and allow this incinerator to pass through without an extremely vigorous and complete evaluation,” Hough said the letter. “The health and environmental threats present a risk. Given Wheelabrator’s checkered environmental record, I believe that environmental permits for this incinerator project should not be approved.”
Hough is the state legislator in the area where the incinerator will be built. The $527 million facility 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. It is slated to open in 2015.
In an interview, Hough said he is concerned with Wheelabrator’s environmental history and wants the MDE to halt the permitting process.
“It certainly doesn’t give you comfort,” he said. “I have a lot of questions that need to be answered. What I don’t want to see is a repeat here in Frederick County.”
Melissa Lohnes, a spokeswoman for Wheelabrator, has said that everything is being done to ensure that the Frederick waste-to-energy facility will incorporate state-of-the-art quality control equipment and be subject to environmental standards and permit requirements that are among the strictest in the nation.
Samantha Kappalman, director of communications with MDE, said the agency will not comment on Hough’s letter because officials have yet to see it.
Kappalman said earlier this month that MDE has yet to complete the permitting phase of the project. When permits regulating air quality are complete, the agency will hold a public hearing that will allow residents to offer their responses.
No date for the hearing has been set, she said.
The agency held a public hearing last month on the incinerator’s water permits.
The first incident at the South Baltimore plant occurred on May 23, 2009, when the power was inadvertently shut off to the system that prevents mercury emissions from escaping from the incinerator.
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 limits.
Kappalman said that in both incidents Wheelabrator reported the violations to 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 also can damage the human nervous system in adults and exposure to too much of it can affect vision, hearing and speech.
The mercury released into the air from the Baltimore incinerator was slightly more than 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.
Wheelabrator operates 17 incinerators nationwide, including the one in Baltimore.
Hough said residents living near the planned incinerator in Frederick County have contacted him with their concerns.
“My constituents have informed me the mercury threat is real ... the potential for serious health degradation in the area resulting from the close proximity to the incinerator is a real threat,” he said.
Residents in the Kingsbrook subdivision south of Frederick city and near the planned incinerator told MDE and representatives from Wheelabrator at several public hearings that they are worried about the chemicals that will be emitted from the incinerator’s smoke stacks.
Commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young (R) said that he is aware of the fines Wheelabrator has had to pay, but is not concerned.
This is not the first time Hough has voiced concerns with the incinerator. He has been against the project since he ran for office in 2010.
“I’ve heard a lot about it when campaigning and knocking on doors,” he said. “I also get a lot of e-mails.”
Hough also has concerns about the cost to taxpayers and the amount of truck traffic that will be generated from a plant that will be big enough to burn 1,500 tons of trash per day.
“First and foremost, the planned site for the incinerator is too close to the surrounding neighborhoods,” Hough said. “Heavy truck traffic will negatively impact this area, and the citizens will be at risk from population effects produced by the incinerator. This disproportionate affect on nearby communities cannot go unaccounted for.”