Exhaustion of nonrenewable resources has caused entropic watersheds, or historic shifts, to arise throughout our known industrialization. Societies have been repeatedly forced to switch from one material to another, following depletion of the prior. Deforestation caused the first jump from wood to coal; mining complications pushed us to discover oil, and climate change’s demand for emission regulations now forces our transition to renewables.
Our current phase is causing a drastic switch in the way our world functions, especially here in Baltimore. Various fossil fuel-based facilities have undergone large transformations to adapt to a changing climate, while others are shuttered and left to the elements. It is a privilege to be detached from them, as this industry pushes to the edges of lower class neighborhoods and “untouched” land. The power plants and their makers contaminate air, water, and human life with little regulation or remorse. Through this exploration of various power plants, I aim to understand all consequences that come with the overconsumption of power.
Wheelabrator Incinerator sits upstream from Westport, a working class neighborhood in Baltimore City. As the industrial boom of the 20th century dwindled, blue collar workers left communities like Westport to live in the suburbs, leaving around half of the homes on this block vacant. Now, 2,250 tons of waste from the city are burned here daily, powering large turbines with steam to generate electricity. Since Baltimore established a “Zero Waste Plan” in 2017, the city’s goal has been to emphasize recycling over the burning of trash. This plan incorporates stricter emission regulations and a proactive approach to waste streams. Wheelabarator, prioritizing their profit over public health, filed a federal lawsuit against the city for such “arbitrary” policies. Their contract is up for renewal in 2021.
The process of burning fossil fuels requires massive amounts of water and energy. For this reason, most plants are located in coastal areas, adjacent to large bodies of water. Gould Street Power Plant sits on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, diverting its water through the facility to be heated by burnt coal. The steam produced rotates large turbines, thus creating electricity for the city. This production lasted from 1904 until the plant’s retirement in June of 2019. Similarly, Baltimore’s waste to energy incinerator is comprised of a furnace, boiler, and “air pollution control system”, as any combustion based plant. BRESCO, or the Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Company, runs the Wheelabrator incinerator that pulls water from the Gwynns Falls stream, a branch of the Patapsco River.
In recent years, Wheelabrator has experienced scrutiny for their lack of sustainable pollution controls. Non profit environmental groups constantly attempt to regulate nitrous oxides, a byproduct of burning waste that can contribute to ground level ozone and worsen respiratory issues like asthma. With Baltimore’s asthma cases almost triple that of the national average, the city has demanded a reduction of the 1,100 tons of nitrous oxides that are released from the incinerator annually. Air that is contaminated with concentrations of nitrogen and other pollutants settle into local waterways and airways. As a vital part of algal growth and function, nitrogen has a specific role in any aquatic ecosystem. Failure to maintain balance in that system can result in nutrient pollution. Pictured here is the Gwynns Falls stream in January of 2019, with the reflection of BRESCO’s steam in its waters. The green algal bloom is caused by an excess of nitrogen present in the surrounding air. This spike in plant growth leads to the depletion of oxygen readily available for other organisms, and ultimately the death of an ecosystem.
Curtis Bay, or “The Bay” is the southernmost neighborhood in Baltimore, housing around 600 residents. Just beyond the residential area lies a coal pier, a medical waste incinerator, petroleum refineries, and chemical processing plants, each rife with their own set of pollutants and environmental hazards. Due to a deep dredged water channel stemming from the Patapsco River, the ports along the Bay’s coast transport around 36 tons of foreign commerce a year (2012). With only three major north-south roadways connecting Curtis Bay to this industry, there is a major concentration of transportation-based pollution running through the neighborhood. Zip code 21226 produces close to 90% of Baltimore’s emmissions annually. Many of these toxins are linked to combustion based processes, i.e. vehicle engines and power plants. They continuously spew out nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide and particulate matter into the atmosphere. These pollutants enter the lungs of community members, causing their risk for respiratory and heart disease to be drastically higher than the rest of Baltimore’s population.
Pictured is a transformer located between Spruce Street and Route 173, the eastern edge of the neighborhood. As the United States' consumption of coal faces its decline, products that are mined in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio are loaded onto ships from Curtis Bay's terminals for international dispersion. This paves the way for the rise of cheap natural gas, America’s “solution” to the next energy crisis.