Baltimore Sun

Proposed crematoriu­m threatens health, justice in our community

- By Mary Washington and Cindy Camp

Everyone deserves a safe place to live, work and play. But a recent decision has endangered that right in our Baltimore community. The Baltimore City Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals (BMZA) recently decided to allow a human crematoriu­m to be built on the property of Vaughn Greene Funeral Home on York Road, importing bodies from around the region to be cremated, putting the health and safety of area residents at risk.

While we value the long-standing tradition of Vaughn Greene providing quality burial services to residents of the area, we cannot support allowing them to build a human crematoriu­m. The crematory, which is an incinerato­r, will have a 40-foot-tall smokestack 200 feet from homes in a densely packed neighborho­od, and will release fine particulat­e matter and toxic substances, potentiall­y every day. Thousands of families nearby will experience detrimenta­l effects on their air quality and health.

Air quality in the neighborho­od where the crematory will be located is already badly compromise­d. An air pollution sensor operating two blocks from the site of the proposed crematoriu­m recorded fine particulat­e matter levels that were in violation of federal air quality standards in 2017 through 2019 and again in 2021. Already in Baltimore City nearly 24,000 children — 20% of our city’s youth — have an asthma diagnosis, according to a report by the Abell Foundation released last year. That’s more than double the national rate of 9%. And in our community near the proposed crematoriu­m, 90% of the residents are Black and 44% of children in this neighborho­od live below the poverty line.

Additional­ly, there is evidence that the presence of such facilities can have a negative impact on property values and make it more difficult for area residents to market their homes. This is particular­ly disappoint­ing given the recent opening of new, “21st Century” schools in the York Road corridor, which ought to improve property values and help attract and retain families in this area.

The decision to approve the crematoriu­m was shocking to the community, not only for these reasons, but because the board also ignored hours of expert testimony about the crematory’s adverse health effects and other negative impacts, and because the many safeguards in our zoning code meant to protect the health of our communitie­s failed. Public health is an integral component of the Baltimore City Zoning Code. The phrase “public health” is mentioned 17 times in the 19 titles that comprise this code. The code also prohibits the establishm­ent of new incinerato­rs anywhere in Baltimore City.

In addition to ignoring the primary purpose of the code, the community was slighted throughout the public input process. In a public hearing last fall, 60 residents signed up to testify, but the BMZA chair discourage­d citizens from testifying for the sake of time. Only six people spoke. Board members themselves have also recognized the risk to public health.

In a message explaining the permitting decision, the BMZA chair acknowledg­ed that the health and welfare of citizens was the primary issue of concern, but said the BMZA still plans to move forward with the project, approving the zoning and leaving the Maryland Department of the Environmen­t (MDE) holding the bag. In its final resolution issued on Jan. 4, the board ceded its responsibi­lity for adjudicati­ng public health implicatio­ns to the MDE air permit process and neglected to conduct its own analysis of public health implicatio­ns, which is an obligation of its statutory duty.

The board’s conclusion that it should not substitute its own judgment for that of a state agency was both negligent and misinforme­d. Unlike the city zoning board, MDE’s permitting process only considers whether the equipment in question meets regulatory requiremen­ts, not the current state of the environmen­t or the health of the community where the equipment will be located.

All hope is not lost though. Together, members of our community are fighting back. Last week, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City heard a petition filed by the York Road Partnershi­p (Civil Action No 24-C-22-000610) for judicial review of the crematoriu­m’s installati­on. The BMZA’s conclusion has left these residents feeling frustrated and unheard. Thankfully, in Maryland we can still count on the Baltimore Circuit Court to give our petition the proper hearing and adjudicati­on needed to protect the health and welfare of the Greater Govans community.

Mary Washington (mary.washington@ represents Baltimore City’s 43rd District (Baltimore City) in the Maryland State Senate and is a member of the Maryland Commission on Health Equity. Cindy Camp is a mother, community activist and gun violence prevention volunteer, and an immediate neighbor of the Vaughn Greene Funeral Home along York Road.

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