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Taking Out the Trash Burners

The fight against a dirty incinerator in Baltimore is an inspiration for all of us.

Having scored one big victory for jobs and the environment, a group of Baltimore activists is trying to take things to the next level. Curtis Bay, their heavily polluted Baltimore neighborhood, had been bracing for a $1 billion garbage incinerator that would have lowered Maryland’s already poor air quality.

Energy Answers, the company that won approval six years ago to build this boondoggle, tried to greenwash the burner, falsely claiming that it would generate “clean” power. But the incinerator would have emitted dangerous levels of mercury, lead, dioxins, and other substances linked to neurological problems, cancer, and asthma – all within a mile of local schools.

That’s why a youth-led organization called Free Your Voice joined with environmental groups in a campaign against the incinerator and in favor of real solutions for dignified jobs and authentically green initiatives. Free Your Voice grew out of a human rights group called United Workers, which was founded in 2002 by homeless day laborers.

Earlier this year, community groups persuaded local school systems, the Baltimore City government, and 19 other key institutions to cancel their plans to purchase electricity from the dirty burner. That dealt a crippling blow to the incinerator. Baltimore will be better off without it.

Burning trash is hazardous to any community’s economy, environment, and public health, which is why I’ve been joining community groups to fight incinerators my entire adult life – from this country to South Africa, India, and the Philippines.

Still, the Maryland Department of the Environment hasn’t yet declared the project dead – even though Energy Answers has failed to do anything on the land for more than 18 months running, violating the terms of its permit. Free Your Voice is now calling upon the environmental agency to officially cancel the company’s permit.

While Energy Answers holds the 97-acre site hostage, people from the emboldened Curtis Bay community are coming up with solutions of their own. Among the ideas that Free Your Voice and its allies are proposing are a community-owned solar farm and an eco-industrial park that would host recycling, reuse, and composting companies. Recycling is better for the environment than burning trash and our discarded possessions, and it creates 10 to 20 times more jobs per ton of material processed.

Nationally, most of our trash ends up in landfills that leach toxins into the soil and water, or goes into incinerators that release toxic fumes – often in inner-city neighborhoods. The result is an assault on public health, an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and a tremendous waste of materials that could have been reused.

Just imagine what would happen if the Baltimore story were repeated across the country. According to a Tellus Institute study, the United States could create over a million jobs by 2030 by transforming the way we manage our waste.

Instead of destroying resources in incinerators and landfills, we could conserve them through recycling and composting. Many of the industry’s jobs could shift from large private corporations to municipal unions. This transformation would aid the environment, public health, equity, and racial justice all in one shot.

When the people of Baltimore got organized, they won the incinerator fight. Now they’re building bridges between movements that too often are pitted against one another, particularly workers and environmentalists. It’s an inspiration to other groups to do the same thing across Maryland and the whole country.

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