Tonight when Baltimore’s mayoral candidates appear together for a forum on environmental issues, they’ll be facing a group energized by what members consider major missteps by city government that have hurt the cause of a greener city.
They question, for instance, the Department of Public Works’ ongoing burial of water tanks at Hanlon Park that has decimated hundreds of trees and a similar reservoir project at Druid Hill Park that has gouged the landscape and at times polluted the Jones Falls.
“One of the things we want is a ‘green’ DPW head,” said organizer Sarah Lord, referring to the vacancy created by the recent resignation of Public Works director Rudolph Chow.
“And that’s because DPW has outraged so many of us,” said Lord, one of the steering committee members of the Baltimore Blue+Green+Just (BBGJ) coalition.
A wide range of organizations are behind BBGJ.
These include large established groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Blue Water Baltimore as well as churches, urban farms and grassroots community groups like the Madison Park Improvement Association, Friends of Gwynns Falls Leakin Park, and the McElderry Community Association.
• “ENVIRONMENT & EQUITY CANDIDATE FORUM.” Tonight at 6-8 p.m., Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, 2812 Reisterstown Road.
The forum aims to raise not just environmental issues, but questions of racial equity.
“It’s communities that have been historically disenfranchised and oppressed that suffer disproportionately from poor air quality, poor water quality and lack of access to green space,” said Franklin Lance, senior pastor of the Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, where the event is being held.
Lance, president and CEO of the Parks & People Foundation, mentioned an initiative his group is supporting – improving access to the Middle Branch of the Patapsco – as a racial equity issue.
“The water quality is abysmal there. That’s something that affects Cherry Hill, Brooklyn and Westport,” he said. “That’s not something that Canton or Fells Point or Roland Park have to deal with.”
Young to Appear?
Adding resonance to the event is the fact that several of the candidates scheduled to appear have had positions of power in city government.
Chief among them Mayor Bernard C. Jack Young, who served for nine years as City Council president before becoming mayor last May after Catherine Pugh’s resignation.
So far, Young has largely avoided forums where mayoral candidates are asked to respond to questions from moderators or the audience. “As of now, the mayor is confirmed,” Lord said.
Other likely participants with City Hall records to defend include former Mayor Sheila Dixon and Council President Brandon Scott.
One of the city’s most pressing environmental issues is the Wheelabrator trash incinerator.
It is biggest source of industrial air pollution in a city with asthma rates that are significantly higher than the statewide average – and highest in Southwest Baltimore where the facility is located.
Pressed by environmental groups and the community, the City Council passed a clean air bill last year, but the company and operators of a medical waste incinerator have challenged the legislation in court.
Asthma rates in Baltimore exceed the statewide average and are highest in Southwest Baltimore where the trash incinerator is located.
Under a “zero waste” plan unveiled by a coalition of community and environmental activists last week, the city would cut its ties with Wheelabrator when its contract expires next year.
It is an ambitious plan that aims to not only promote recycling and resource conservation, but create jobs and curtail illegal dumping.
Another challenge is how mayoral candidates will respond to the climate crisis, with higher temperatures well documented to disproportionately affect poor, predominantly African-American neighborhoods.
Will Baltimore’s new mayor support mitigation measures like increasing the tree canopy, painting roofs white and subsidizing air conditioners?
Sewage Releases, Tree Cutting
Among the other controversies in Baltimore that have roiled communities, frustrated environmental advocates and violated state and federal pollution laws:
• A $137 million reservoir project that caught the Ashburton community by surprise and claimed 200 trees, nearly all of those growing in Hanlon Park.
• A $150 million project to bury water tanks at Druid Hill Park despite the fact that, in 2009, the city was given permission to meet federal water quality standards by keeping the open reservoir intact and building an ultraviolet disinfection plant.
• Delays that led to chlorinated water gushing into a Leakin Park stream for three days, killing an estimated 2,000 fish, including the threatened American eel.
• Chronic overflows of human waste into Baltimore waterways, including a notorious sewer stack that released 26.5 million gallons of untreated sewage into Herring Run between December 2018 and August 2019, then blew again last October.
• DPW’s failure over 14 years to comply with a federal consent decree to end the practice of releasing sewage into the Jones Falls. After the decree was renegotiated in 2017 to push back the deadline, activists and community leaders have watched with dismay sewage releases – and basement back-ups – continue.
One of the BBGJ coalition’s proposals is the creation of a deputy mayor for sustainability to keep City Hall better attuned to environment issues, said Dick Williams, a steering committee member.
He said the groups are looking not just for policy changes, but a deeper understanding of the underlying issues and a greater willingness to listen to advocates and communities.
“We want the new administration to take a hard look at what they may be doing that is causing injustice and harming public health, and stop ignoring stakeholders and instead work with them,” Williams said.