Fairfield Renewable Energy Power Plant and Resource Recovery Project, Curtis Bay, MD

by Andrew Brummer, Colgate University, 2016

Energy Answers International, a private energy company based in Albany, New York, is currently building the nation’s largest waste-to-energy incinerator in Curtis Bay, Maryland. These types of power plants emit numerous different pollutants, including conventional greenhouse gases, particulate matter and heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and mercury[1]. Not only does Curtis Bay already have some of the highest levels of pollution in the nation[2], but the site for the incinerator is less than one mile away from the Benjamin Franklin High School and the Curtis Bay Elementary School[3].

A mock-up of what the Fairfield Renewable Energy Project will look like once it is completed. (Energy Answers International, 2015)

What exactly is Waste-to-Energy?

As the United States has made greater efforts towards increasing the use of renewable energies, we have seen a rise in our utilization of Waste-to-Energy as a means of generating electricity[4]. These incinerators create steam by burning landfill garbage to boil water, and the steam is then used to spin a turbine to generate electricity[5]. While some consider it to be a promising source of electricity production, it also emits a variety of pollutants into the atmosphere that can affect surrounding communities[6].

The Fairfield Renewable Energy Power Plant is projected to have a net electric capacity of 141 MW[7], which is almost twice that of the current largest WTE power plant, yet only a small fraction of the net electric capacity of the largest coal or natural gas power plants[8]. Despite questions about its environmental impact and permit compliance, the site is set to compete construction by the end of 2018[9].

Curtis Bay Neighborhoods. (n.d.).

Problems with the location of the site

The main issue surrounding the construction of this site is that Curtis Bay already has some of the nation’s highest levels of air pollution[10]. In 2010, the area released approximately 2.2 million points of harmful air pollutants from stationary facilities, ranking as the 74th highest zip code in America for toxic and greenhouse gas emissions[11]. Emissions from this area comprise roughly 37 percent of total toxic emissions in the state of Maryland, and more than 87 percent of all stationary source toxic emissions in Baltimore City[12]. Despite these issues, politicians in Maryland support this plant because it will help the state reach its Renewable Portfolio Standards for “Tier 1” renewable energies[13].

The WTE Incinerator in Curtis Bay is also located less than a mile away from the Benjamin Franklin High School and the Curtis Bay Elementary School[14]. The toxins emitted by the plant will come in direct contact with these students on a daily basis. The effects that these pollutants will have on the children and young adults attending these schools can be devastating. Critical lung development typically occurs during the first 6-7 years of a child’s life, and exposure to air pollution puts them at serious risk of developing asthma, growth issues, and neurological complications[15]. Children and young adults also typically spend more time outside than adults do (playing sports and other recreational activities), making them much more vulnerable to such increases in air pollution[16]. Currently, about 20 percent of children in Baltimore have asthma, while the national average is only about 9.4 percent[17].

The “Free Your Voice” campaign protests peacefully in Curtis Bay. (Students Rap On Environmental Injustice!, 2014).

The location of this site is made even more problematic when you take in to account the lack of representation for children and young adults in the policy making process. They cannot vote until they are 18, which reduces their political voice because politicians are less likely to directly reflect their best interests. The “Free Your Voice” movement is a campaign put forth by the students of Benjamin Franklin High School to protest the construction of the incinerator in Curtis Bay[18]. While it has seen some success in delaying the building process[19], it is clear that the voices of these students have been largely ignored. While the marginalization of children is not commonly explored by many scholars, this site is undoubtedly a clear example of it.

Theories on why WTE incinerators came about

An important question we must explore regarding WTE incinerators is how exactly they came to be so prominent in present day society. We as humans have been able to harness electricity through burning waste for almost a hundred years now; however, WTE incinerators were not considered a promising source of electricity until the early years of the 21st century, as concerns grew about increased landfill use and the effects of climate change from burning fossil fuels[20]. The Social Construction of Technology Theory would tell us that these WTE incinerators did not become prominent organically, but rather due to a cultural need for us to generate electricity using anything other than fossil fuels[21].

Since when did garbage become considered a “resource” anyway? Most geographers would say that trash became a resource as soon as the first WTE incinerator was built[22]. This is because many view resources as a “hybrid” of physical and social constructions[23]. They have their physical qualities (their existence, so to speak), as well as their usefulness for humans. In the case of human trash, once we figured out a way to generate electricity from it, it became a resource.

Not only is trash now considered a resource, but it is also considered a renewable resource because the stock of trash replenishes constantly as humans consume goods and dispose of the waste[24]. This seems a bit strange, right? If we are to consider our own garbage to be renewable, that would mean that we would have to continue on our current paths of consumption and disposal rather than making a greater push towards recycling and lowering wasteful consumption. Encouraging trash to be renewable seems counter-intuitive to the overall goal of protecting our environment.

Another important way to look at this site is through the lens of energy colonialism. In the past, geographers have written about ways in which major energy projects (such as many large dams or nuclear facilities) often involve powerful entities, like national governments and large private energy companies, exerting their dominance over local, underrepresented populations. Commonly explored forms of energy colonialism include hydrologic colonialism and nuclear colonialism. In Curtis Bay we find a new form of energy colonialism, which we can call WTE colonialism. Energy Answers, in conjunction with the state of Maryland, is using its power as a private entity to produce electricity and generate revenue while simultaneously harming the health of children and young adults in the surrounding area. The negative effects are kept local, while the benefits are distributed to the greater Baltimore area (via the electricity created) and to the company’s headquarters in Albany (via the revenue).

Why Curtis Bay?

An aerial view of Curtis Bay, Maryland. (Sauers, 2011).

The main question surrounding this incinerator is “Why Curtis Bay?” The area is already home to a 200-acre coal pier, a fertilizer plant, a medical waste incinerator, and several chemical plants[25], why does it have to now hold the nation’s largest WTE incinerator? Unfortunately, the answer is neither simple nor sufficiently given. Under the guise of renewable energies, landfill reduction, and job creation, Energy Answers has successfully been able to exert its corporate power over an otherwise defenseless population. Fortunately, the protesting has seen some success, which leaves us with some hope that the plant can be stopped before it is finished. However, more needs to be done. At the very least, we should be urging our local governments to ban the construction of any form of incinerators within a mile of a school. We must protect our children from harmful air pollution.

1 Orvis, R. (2011, October). Waste-To-Energy: Dirtying Maryland’s Air by Seeking a Quick Fix on Renewable Energy?. Washington, D.C.: Environmental Integrity Project (EIP). Retrieved March 02, 2016, from http://environmentalintegrity.org/wp-content/uploads/2011-10_WTE_Incinerator.pdf

2 Williams, T. (2015, January 10). Garbage Incinerators Make Comeback, Kindling Both Garbage and Debate. The New York Times. Retrieved April 10, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/us/garbage-incinerators-make-comeback-kindling-both-garbage-and-debate.html.

3 Jedra, C. (2015, October 31). Despite protests and delays, full-time construction of power plant set for 2016. Capital Gazette. Retrieved from http://www.capitalgazette.com/news/ph-ac-gn-energy-answers-power-plant-1028-20151030-story.html

4 Williams (2015).

5 Covanta. (N.d.). Understand How Energy-from-Waste Works. Retrieved March 02, 2016, from http://www.covanta.com/sustainable-solutions/energy-from-waste.aspx

6 Orvis (2012).

7 Energy Answers International. (2015, February 25). Fairfield Renewable Energy Power Plant and Resource Recovery Project. Albany, NY. Retrieved March 18, 2016, from http://www.energyanswers.com/pdf/Fairfield%20Renewable%20Energy%20Project.022515.pdf

8 U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis. (2013, January 03). Electric Generating Capacity. Retrieved April 18, 2016, from https://www.eia.gov/electricity/capacity/

9 Jedra (2015).

10 Orvis (2012).

11 Orvis (2012).

12 Orvis (2012).

13 Orvis (2012).

14 Jedra (2015).

15 Winer, A. M. (2013). Air Pollution Impacts on Infants and Children,  UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Retrieved April 18, 2016, from http://www.environment.ucla.edu/reportcard/article1700.html

16 Winer (2013).

17 Cohn, M. (2015, February 5). Poverty, race drive asthma rates more than city living. The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved on date, from http://www.baltimoresun.com/health/bs-hs-asthma-in-the-city-20150202-story.html

18 Demczuk, G. (2015, January 10). In Baltimore, Fighting an Incinerator. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/video/us/100000003333133/in-baltimore-a-fight-for-clean-air.html

19 Demczuk (2015).

20 Williams (2015).

21 Nye, D.E. 2001. Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies. The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

22 Bridge, G. (2009). Material worlds: Natural resources, resource geography and the material economy. Geography Compass 3(3): 1217-1244.

23 Bridge (2009).

24 Armstrong, J., and Hamrin, J. (n.d.). The Renewable Energy Policy Manual. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Export Council for Renewable Energy. Retrieved March 09, 2016, from http://www.oas.org/dsd/publications/Unit/oea79e/oea79e.pdf

25 Williams (2015).

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