Burning Plastic in Baltimore and the Environmental Human Rights Amendment

A new report released from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) documents that 96% of the plastic in Baltimore’s waste stream is buried at the Quarantine Road Landfill (49%) or burned at the BRESCO incinerator (47%). Only 3.5% of plastic is recycled in Baltimore. A key takeaway from the report is that “most plastic is designed to be dumped or burned, harming communities.” You can read the full report here

Communities of color bear the burden of being located near trash incinerators

A previous report commissioned by GAIA revealed that “79% of the 73 incinerators remaining in the U.S. are located in low-income communities and/or communities of color. 4.4 million people across the U.S. live within three miles of incinerators, approximately 1.6 millon of whom are within a three-miles radius of the twelve top emitters of PM2.5, NOx, lead, and mercury pollutants.” You can read more here

Burning plastics is detrimental to human health

At a recent press conference to announce the new GAIA report, Dr. Dan Morhaim representing Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility spoke about the dangers of burning plastic waste. “Plastics are made from fossil fuels and usage increases the demand for these non-renewable fuels. When these are burned, residues go into the air just like the exhaust from cars, trucks, and smokestacks. Besides contributing to climate change, this leads to a range of health issues from asthma to heart disease to cancer to developmental disorders in children. Is it any wonder that these diseases are all on the rise?”

Call to action to ban burning single use plastics at the BRESCO Incinerator

Residents, business leaders and health professionals launched a call for urgent action in the face of the growing plastic pollution crisis including a ban on burning single use plastics at the BRESCO Incinerator. You can sign on to the call for action here and share with your friends, family and network. If you are a Baltimore resident, contact your city council representative and the Mayor. If you live outside the city, contact your state representative.  Look up your Maryland representatives here.

How could an Environmental Human Rights Amendment help with this environmental injustice?

Amending our state constitution’s Bill of Rights to protect our individual right to clean air, water, land and a stable climate creates a constitutional right for the people of Maryland. It also creates trustee obligations for the state and local government to protect Maryland’s public natural resources for current and future generations.

When an Environmental Human Rights Amendment is passed and approved by voters, local governments would be constitutionally bound to not infringe on the resident’s right to a healthful environment, including clean air, water, and land. This constitutional right could have been invoked by residents when the outgoing mayor signed another 10 year contract with the BRESCO Incinerator. 

As trustees, local government has a duty to prohibit the degradation, diminution, and depletion of our public  natural resources, whether these harms might result from direct state action or from the actions of private parties with state authority.

The residents could also invoke the amendment to address the environmental injustice that their community carries, enduring a disproportionate environmental burden through the new 10-year contract with the BRESCO Incinerator.  As the PA Supreme Court wrote in the Landmark 2013 PA Robinson Township v Commonwealth of Pennsylvania case breathing life back into their state’s environmental rights amendment: “under [the legislation in question], some properties and communities will carry much heavier environmental and habitability burdens than others.”46 This result, the plurality stated, is inconsistent with the obligations that the trustee [the state] act for the benefit of “all the people”.47 (Dernbach, John C., Thinking Anew About the Environmental Rights Amendment: An Analysis of Recent Commonwealth Court Decisions. 30 WIDENER COMMW. L. REV. 147 (2021)., Widener Law Commonwealth Research Paper No. 21-4, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3777547)

The Maryland Constitutional Amendment for Environmental Human Rights is not a magic bullet, but it would be a legal tool that residents could use in holding the government accountable for the decisions they make that are not in alignment with the right to a healthful environment. Join us in advocating for the passage of the Environmental Human Rights Amendment by the Maryland General Assembly. You can sign up for campaign updates and follow MDEHR on Twitter and Instagram. MDEHR will be launching an ambassador training program this fall. Sign up to be a volunteer advocate here.