South Baltimore Advocates File Civil Rights Complaint Over Trash Incinerator Pollution Threats

Baltimore — In the fight for environmental justice and cleaner air and water, advocates from South Baltimore, working with the Environmental Integrity Project and allies, yesterday filed a federal civil rights complaint with EPA on behalf of people suffering from pollution from Maryland’s largest trash incinerator, Baltimore’s BRESCO incinerator south of M&T Bank Stadium.

South Baltimore Community Land Trust (SBCLT), represented by Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), filed the Title VI (civil rights) complaint over the Baltimore City Department of Public Works’ 10-year solid waste management plan.

The complaint states that DPW failed to adequately plan a transition away from reliance on the highly polluting municipal waste incinerator called the Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Company (BRESCO). The air pollution from the incinerator contributes to the unequal health risks faced by people living in Baltimore’s Mt. Winans, Westport, Cherry Hill, Lakeland, Brooklyn, and Curtis Bay neighborhoods.

“As someone raised in Cherry Hill who now suffers from an incurable lung disease as a result of air pollution, I am hopeful that our call for a just transition away from burning trash in our communities is finally heard and acted upon,” said Cleo Walker, a Cherry Hill resident. “I don’t want another generation to have to grow up worried about the air they breathe.”

Located in one of Baltimore’s most disadvantaged communities, the BRESCO incinerator is the largest stationary source of industrial air pollution in Baltimore. People living nearby face health risks from the facility’s air emissions, which include mercury, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter, which can trigger asthma and heart attacks, among other serious health problems.

“Trash incinerators and landfills produce unacceptable levels of toxic and climate-harming pollution and they are often sited in marginalized communities,” said Leah Kelly, Senior Attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project. “We cannot continue relying on these facilities as our primary waste disposal options, as Baltimore City has in this plan. We must plan a transition to better alternatives; that is part of what South Baltimore residents are seeking in this complaint.”

For a copy of the complaint, click here.

BRESCO’s emissions cost Maryland and neighboring states $55 million in human health problems annually, according to a 2017 study commissioned by CBF. The study concludes that living near the incinerator is similar to living with a smoker, at least for some children, senior citizens, and others with sensitive lungs.

Residents also describe heavy truck traffic carrying trash into the incinerator and waste ash out to the Quarantine Road Landfill, which is a large emitter of methane, a pollutant driving climate change, and has a history of water quality violations.

“Even though our youth and community members have literally created a zero-waste plan and started businesses to prove we can do it, our city gave us another 10-year solid waste plan that will keep putting the same environmental injustice on us here in South Baltimore,” said lifelong Mt. Winans resident Angela Smothers. “I won’t continue to sit by while my friends and neighbors suffer from so many health issues worsened by having that giant white smoke stack standing over us spitting out toxins into the places we love the most.”

The air pollution eventually falls down and pollutes waterways. Based on 2011 emissions data, BRESCO’s NOx emissions deposited an average of 6,570 pounds per year of nitrogen pollution directly into the Chesapeake Bay. Excess nitrogen in the Bay fuels harmful algal blooms that can lead to low-oxygen dead zones. These emissions make it harder for Maryland to meet requirements to reduce pollution to the Bay, putting the burden on taxpayers rather than the polluting facility.

Members of the South Baltimore organization have led zero-waste initiatives to reduce the amount of trash that must be burned or sent to landfills. Their work includes advocating for a city compost facility and challenging a new incinerator in Fairfield in 2009, which would have been the largest incinerator in the nation. The group holds the City of Baltimore accountable for its zero-waste commitments, which are not currently prioritized in DPW’s solid waste plan.

After DPW announced its intent to develop a 10-year solid waste plan in 2023, the agency held a multi-phase public comment process and received over 700 comments. SBCLT and many others cited the need for specific, measurable strategies that would effectively transition the city away from incineration at BRESCO.

However, DPW’s waste plan, which went into effect in early 2024, fails to chart a clear path away from the incinerator.

The Title VI complaint addresses the unequal risks experienced in the neighborhoods of Cherry Hill, Brooklyn, Curtis Bay, Lakeland, Westport, and Mt. Winans. Each of these communities is categorized as disadvantaged by the White House Council on Environmental Quality’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, indicating they are above the 90th percentile for environmental burdens.

The Title VI complaint is intended to halt federal funding for entities engaged in discriminatory practices—in this case, Baltimore DPW. EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office may choose to either reject or accept the complaint for further investigation.

CBF was one of two organizations representing SBCLT in the complaint.  “Baltimore’s 10-year waste management plan completely ignores the injustices from pollution suffered by the people of South Baltimore. EPA must investigate,” said Taylor Lilley, CBF Environmental Justice Staff Attorney. “South Baltimore’s environmental justice status reflects the high concentration of harmful activities in the area—not only BRESCO waste incineration, but landfill operations, wastewater treatment, animal rendering, coal transfer activities, and more.”

Shashawnda Campbell, Environmental Justice Director for SBCLT said: “We are taking this action now because residents of South Baltimore have a right to finally live free from air polluted by burning trash.”

(Pictured: South Baltimore residents holding a press conference to announce the complaint on May 29, 2024, outside of the BRESCO incinerator in Baltimore. Photo by Tom Pelton/EIP.)

Media contacts:

South Baltimore Community Land Trust, Greg Sawtell, 513-638-7107,;

Environmental Integrity Project, Tom Pelton, 443-510-2574,;

Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Kenny Fletcher, 804-638-9036,;