Drivers approaching the entrance of the former FMC Corp. chemical-making complex on Baltimore’s industrial Fairfield peninsula are welcomed by a large and well-lit green sign mounted on a landscaped terrace: “Future Home of Fairfield Renewable Energy Power Plant.” They’ve been so welcomed since at least June 2011, when Google Street View captured images of the same sign and the 90-acre site, where the only visible changes since are the removal of a smokestack and the installation of a series of metal beams on the property’s eastern edge. 

On a recent visit, a car and a motorcycle were parked behind the closed gates at the entrance, the only signs of human presence. Other than two large buildings, the security post, and a few trailers, the property is a yawning expanse of concrete and grass pocked by a few tanks and the occasional pile of rubble. 

This is not how the defunct FMC site, which the company mothballed in the mid-2000s, was supposed to look in the summer of 2014. By today, it was meant to house the largest waste-to-energy (WTE) incinerator in the country by far, and the first new one constructed in the U.S. since 1995. Each day, more than 230 trucks were supposed to be delivering 4,000 tons of refuse-derived fuel for incineration in boilers capable of generating nearly 160 megawatts (MWs) of power, enough to satisfy the electrical demands of more than 130,000 homes and more than double the WTE-generation capacity of Maryland’s three existing incinerators. Construction of the plant was supposed to have already generated 1,300 jobs, with another 600 derived from its operation, including almost 150 positions at the plant itself, where the annual payroll would be $12.5 million.

The still-dormant site must be a bit of an embarrassment for Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (D), Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D), U.S. Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.), FMC Corp. president and CEO Pierre Brondeau, United Steelworkers vice president Fred Redmond, former Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Coalition executive director Carol Eshelman, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deputy administrator Robert Perciasepe—and a source of great frustration for Patrick Mahoney, the president and CEO of the Albany, NY-based Energy Answers (EA), the company that wants to build and operate the plant on FMC Corp.’s property. 

On Oct. 18, 2010, after EA’s proposed plant had gotten all the necessary regulatory go-aheads, each of those leaders sat on a temporary stage at the FMC Corp. site and rose, one by one, to a podium, giving grandiose speeches at the project’s ceremonial kickoff event, portions of which are memorialized in a video on EA’s website. They extolled the virtues of a technology that, as the WTE industry group Energy Recovery Council claims in its publications, each year in the U.S. burns more than 30 million tons of trash that would otherwise go to landfills in order to sell vast quantities of electricity while recovering hundreds of thousands of tons of metals for recycling. 

O’Malley, declaring that “Maryland’s economy is an innovation economy,” stood to say the plant “fits directly into this innovation economy and where we’re going in this fight for a cleaner, greener, more sustainable future with more jobs.” Rawlings-Blake said, “I’m proud, very proud, to have this project in Baltimore City,” and deemed the event “truly a great day in Baltimore,” claiming it would provide “jobs for skilled union workers” and serve as “a national model for green, renewable energy.” After Ruppersberger said that “this is the way that we need to do things in our community, in our country,” Perciasepe added that “it’s projects like this that show the right thing to do for the environment is also the right thing to do for the economy. We don’t have to choose between the two.”

On the day of the event, coverage of the project showed up on the trade website Waste Business Journal, announcing that “construction of the power plant is expected to begin in December 2010, with completion and commencement of commercial operations by December 2013.” Today, EA’s brochure about the Fairfield project predicts it will be in operation in the spring of 2016.

Beset by construction delays, financing difficulties, and an ongoing permit violation for which fines are currently mounting at the rate of $25,000 per day, EA’s Fairfield project is now suffering a public-image threat. A vocal, impassioned group of students at a nearby high school has targeted the project as fundamentally unjust, and they’ve gotten a lot of attention by invoking human rights when arguing their community has enough pollution already without an additional load from EA’s proposed new smokestacks, which will be allowed to emit more brain-damaging mercury than all of Maryland’s coal-burning power plants combined.

The planned and permitted incinerator’s problems continue despite Maryland’s best efforts to help: In 2011, O’Malley signed into law a measure making EA’s prospective product–WTE-generated electricity–a preferred commodity on the energy markets, as it is in most states around the country. Even with this boost, though, proposed WTE generators in Maryland have struggled to come on line. In addition to EA’s long-delayed Fairfield project, plans for a proposed WTE incinerator in Frederick that earlier this year finally received its permit now seems on the verge of collapse. 

City Paper asked EA to explain the project’s current status and how the company is handling community opposition, but received no response. By delving into the public record and talking to people knowledgeable about the project and WTE in Maryland, though, it becomes clear that there is a fundamental dilemma with the technology: It needs special treatment from the government to work, yet, by working, it competes with cleaner alternatives. Its special status on the electricity-supply markets puts it in direct competition with non-polluting renewables, and its raw material is trash, of which it needs a large and constant supply, and that’s precisely the resource that the recycling and composting industries need to thrive.

Greg Smith, a longtime anti-burn advocate who heads a Takoma Park-based nonprofit called Community Research, offers a nuanced counterpoint to Perciasepe’s win-win rhetoric: “If you do the right thing environmentally, you’re likely going to be able to do the right thing fiscally and economically, but if you do the wrong thing environmentally, you’re more than likely going to have a really hard time doing the right thing fiscally and economically.” While O’Malley says WTE fits in with Maryland’s innovation economy, maybe, without new WTE capacity, Maryland will have a better chance of growing cleaner, greener ways to innovate on the waste-management and electricity-generating fronts than building more mercury-emitting trash-burning plants.

 

At first, it seemed that EA’s Fairfield project was wired for success. 

Certainly, the display of impassioned support from government, union, and community leaders at its kickoff ceremony in Oct. 2010 gave that impression. The show was all the more impressive because it came right on the heels of serious controversies over the project at the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC), which cleared it to proceed with an August 2010 order granting a required “certificate of public convenience and necessity.”

The PSC’s order had prompted a lawsuit by some powerful national and local players in the solid-waste arena: the National Solid Wastes Management Association and Wheelabrator Baltimore, the owner of the city’s existing trash-burning incinerator, commonly known as the BRESCO plant. They contended, unsuccessfully, that a July 2010 settlement agreement between the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), the Department of Natural Resources Power Plant Research Project (PPRP), and EA illegally gave the company waivers from legal requirements that prohibit solid-waste incinerators from being built within a mile of a school and that require such facilities to obtain a refuse-disposal permit, like Wheelabrator has for the BRESCO plant. While they dismissed the lawsuit a few months after filing it, their point was clear: EA was getting preferential treatment. 

Then came O’Malley’s 2011 decision to sign the bill making WTE part of Maryland’s renewable-power mix as a Tier I resource under the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). This was key, since Maryland’s RPS program gives power-supply companies credits for buying electricity from renewable sources, and by law the amount coming from such sources must increase in stages to 18 percent by 2022, with an additional two percent coming from solar energy by 2020. As a Tier 1 resource, WTE now gets counted the same as—and, in essence, competes with—power generation from wind, biomass (such as burning chicken manure), landfill gas, and small hydroelectric power.  

After these successes for EA, on December 29, 2011, the first signs of trouble emerged. Under the conditions of the PSC order, the Fairfield project was required to start construction by Feb. 5, 2012, and EA didn’t think they could make it. As EA’s Baltimore attorneys, Todd Chason and Michael C. Powell, explained in a PSC filing made that day:

“Energy Answers has worked diligently and in good faith to construct the Fairfield Facility, but to date has been able to enter into contracts for some, but not all, of its electric output and fuel requirements. Until additional contractual commitments are secured, financing cannot be obtained. Efforts to sign contracts are ongoing, but may not be finalized until after the deadline.”

Though EA’s energy-sales contracts weren’t enough to qualify for financing, the filing explained that EA “has made progress” by “executing a deal for 25 MWs with the Baltimore Regional Cooperative Purchasing Committee.” The committee is a group of local-government entities—Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford, and Carroll counties, as well as their respective public-school systems, along with the City of Annapolis—organized under the Baltimore Metropolitan Council to make purchases together to get better deals on goods and services. In addition, the filing said EA had gotten “a Letter of Intent with Maryland’s Department of General Services for up to an additional 10 MWs,” while it had “secured a waste/fuel sourcing agreement with the Maryland Environmental Service,” a self-financed government agency that serves as an environmental contractor for other government agencies and private entities. 

Clearly, agreements from public agencies to purchase about 15 percent, or possibly 20 percent, of the Fairfield plant’s expected generation capacity, together with another agreement to get an indeterminate amount of refuse from another public agency to serve as fuel, was not enough to impress whatever financiers were thinking about backing the plant’s construction.