County Executive’s Incinerator Shutdown Pledge Is Sidelined

Elrich's campaign priorities included closing Dickerson plant by 2022

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County Executive Marc Elrich says he may not be able to shut down the county’s incinerator in Dickerson by 2022 because there currently isn’t an alternative to disposing of 1,800 tons of trash per day.

Elrich had pledged throughout his campaign last year that he would close the facility, which opened in 1995.

On Jan. 30, 2018, he tweeted “And I’m preparing legislation to create a plan to transition us away from the incinerator so we can close it when our contract expires in 2022,” in response to a comment from environmental activist and former county council candidate Danielle Meitiv. He repeated the promise in several candidate forums, and wrote it on his website as one of his priorities.

But Elrich walked back his campaign promise in an interview.

“I’m gonna phase it out when I can phase it out. But people have to remember that I didn’t say I was gonna shut it down until we had a plan for dealing with the waste,” he said. “So I’m not shutting it down until we figure out how we’re gonna figure out how we’re gonna increase the amount of recycling.”

Elrich’s recent comments come after it was discovered that his predecessor, County Executive Ike Leggett, signed a five-year contract extension to keep the incinerator through 2026, citing the need for county officials to spend more time finding an alternative trash disposal method.

Leggett had written in a letter to Christopher Skaggs, who heads the independent state agency Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, that the county was on its way to meeting the goal of recycling 70 percent of its waste, but that ending the incinerator’s use would result in an annual increase of $18 million for hauling trash to out-of-county landfills.

Leggett has also expressed concern over shipping trash to landfills southern Virginia due or a Baltimore processing plant to the potentially negative effects it could have on poor and minority communities.

Elrich said that the county would have to use a landfill when it transitions away from the incinerator.

“There are landfills out there, not here. Some of it’s [the trash] gonna go to a landfill either way. No matter what we do, we know we can’t recycle everything. We certainly aren’t gonna be able to recycle everything by 2022 or 2026, so we want to figure out the most aggressive strategy for recycling,” he said.

At the state level, a coalition of legislators and activists hopes to end Maryland’s credits for rubbish incineration, which are granted under the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standards program based on how much renewable energy each facility produces.

Skaggs said that the Dickerson incinerator netted a total of $2 million during 2018, which is ultimately credited back to Montgomery County. The operating cost to the county for the incinerator was $26.6 million in fiscal 2019.

Legislation sponsored by Baltimore City’s Nick Mosby, a Democratic delegate, and Republican Sen. Mike Hough, who represents Frederick and Carroll counties, would end the state’s practice of subsidizing incinerators.

Del. Lorig Charkoudian, a Takoma Park Democrat, is a co-sponsor of the House bill and said Friday that ending the subsidy was not intended as a measure to close the Dickerson plant. But she said the county should still explore long-term options for reducing waste, as Elrich has said.

“I do strongly favor moving toward more compost and more recycling, and I think it’s very realistic to do that, and we should do that,” she said.

Charkoudian said she worries about the possibility of using landfills to bury the ash in the future because of the toxic fumes emanating from the waste. She said she remains optimistic that the county can one day go to 100 percent recycling and composting.

“We’ve put a person on the moon. If we have the political and moral will and we care about the planet, we can get almost anywhere. But it does take political will and vision,” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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