One Baltimore #38, Dante Swinton, Part One

2/24/20

It’s a crowded Mayoral race this year, with seven Republicans and twenty-four Democrats set to appear on their respective ballots on April 28th. You can hear from many of them tonight at the Baltimore Blue + Green + Just Candidates’ Forum on Environment & Equity (https://www.facebook.com/events/804569423328993/). It should be an opportunity for Dante C. Swinton to shine, being the only candidate who shares my undergrad major of Environmental Studies.

For a long time, I’ve had “Baltimore’s awful air quality” on my list for future One Baltimore columns. I can cross that one off now, because the other week I interviewed Dante, and he covered it all better that I could’ve, it being a big part of his field of expertise as a researcher and organizer at the Energy Justice Network. The interesting part is how he connects the air we breathe not just to health, but to other vital priorities for improving our city.

This interview has been lightly edited for length.

*

Abby: So, where are you from?

Dante: I’m from South Carolina. I grew up there, went to undergrad there. I went to grad school here in Baltimore, though, so I’ve lived here most of the last six years. Doing organizing, trying to change the world, all that good stuff.

Abby: Yeah! Where’d you go to grad school at?

Dante: University of Baltimore, got a Master’s of Non-Profit Management and Social Entrepreneurship, so, trying to bring that to my job, hopefully create a social enterprise this year for Baltimore on top of running.

Abby: What would the social enterprise be?

Dante: It would be focused around glass recovery. Right now, there isn’t a lot of glass recovery industry in the city, or in the region for that matter, so I’d want to contract the restaurants, get their bottled glass, either recycle that into new bottles that could be used by breweries or re-form it into cups, vases. Because it’s 100% recyclable, but if we’re doing a single stream thing it’s just going to contaminate everything else. I think it has a lot of ability to scale up.

Abby: I saw a news article saying that Baltimore County hasn’t been recycling its glass?

Dante: Yeah, I saw that on the news last night.

Abby: For so long, people have been like “I don’t believe recycling is real” and I’ve been like “No, it is, it is!” and now I gotta go back and be like “…ok, maybe not.”

Dante: Right. I think that we’ve spent way too much time depending on China, Indonesia, and various other island countries to deal with plastic waste when we could have been reusing it ourselves. Like Charlotte for example, they started their zero waste plan in September of ‘18, they’re a landfill city as opposed to incinerators like we are, and they registered that they’re burying about $111 million of material every year.

Abby: Damn.

Dante: Right? So now, in their plan, they’re very specific about wanting to utilize the waste to create more social enterprises in the communities of color, the low-income communities they’ve left behind, so that these jobs are actually focused on communities that haven’t had the access to resources.

And that’s really exciting, people are actually registering that this is something we could be doing, or should do, and even the liberal bastion that is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce put out their report and said that a 70% diversion rate could add $4.5 trillion to the national economy by 2030 if we were just really aggressive about it. They did a case study of Orlando, and Orlando hitting a 70% recycling rate would create 8,500 jobs, so this is a job opportunity for a city like Baltimore, which is why I push it so much. I think, running, you have to have some kind of comprehensive jobs plan, and I think I’m the only one who has one that could be on the ground running within that first year and a half.

Abby: So, I first heard your name in connection to the fight against the incinerator, tell me how that went down.

Dante: We’re home to the 8th dirtiest incinerator in the country, it’s been around for thirty-five years and it’s the largest polluter in the city. 36% of all the emissions from industry in the city, that are stationary at least, come from that smokestack. It’s put out at least 10,000 pounds of lead in its lifetime, millions of pounds of NOx every year, it’s just very silly to keep that as a primary source of waste disposal in the city, especially when most of what we throw out is recyclable or compostable.

So, we’ve pushed back the last few years, got our Baltimore Clean Air Act passed, which is set up to shutter Wheelabrator and the medical waste incinerator, which is the largest one in the country. Both of them receive stuff from outside of the city, like Wheelabrator is eight states and five counties —

Abby: EIGHT states?

Dante: Yeah.

Abby: I knew it was the counties, but I didn’t realize it was other states’ waste we’re putting in our air. That made a huge impact on me, to realize that we’re literally taking other people’s waste and breathing it in.

Dante: Exactly, like, lean on us, it’s all good. And then Curtis Bay Energy, they take in from nineteen or twenty states and Canada.

Abby: And that’s the medical waste incinerator.

Dante: Mmhm. We get to be the dumping ground for everyone else and breathe in their lovely pollution. So when Wheelabrator made their case, like, “Oh my god, the world is ending if we shut down, trash will be everywhere,” they disregarded that almost half that trash isn’t even from the city, so now if they shut down, it won’t be coming into the city, because we’re not going to accept anyone else’s trash.

Abby: That’s a lot of truck traffic it’ll get rid of as well.

Dante: Exactly. It’s cheaper to build the infrastructure for zero waste, like a recycling facility the size of San Francisco’s is about $40 million, but just to expand our landfill would be $100 million, building a new incinerator would be $300 million to $1 billion, so just changing one thing is still cheaper in the long-run and the short-term than keeping the status quo.

The city’s consultant’s [waste management] plan is supposed to come out next month, it may not, who knows, but that’s supposed to be for thirty years, and ideally it’ll be progressive. We are not too hopeful about that, so we’ll have to do a lot of critiquing, but at least there’s a recognition by the Sustainability Commission, by the Mayor’s office, by the City Council, that it’s time to move on.

Abby: So how did you get involved in that fight?

Dante: When I was in undergrad, I got involved in pushing back on coal plants being built in low-income communities in South Carolina and finally got a chance to get paid to do that stuff. I started with Energy Justice in August of ‘15, so almost five years ago. We’re really excited about this work expanding, more and more people seeing the need to move on from these incinerators, especially in Baltimore when it’s such an economic opportunity and such an environmental justice opportunity as well.

Abby: I’ve been an environmental professional my whole career, and it wasn’t until I was doing a grant application and they asked “What other environmental issues is your community facing?” that I started to do some digging, and I was so shocked to realize that our air quality is some of the worst in the entire country, especially in south Baltimore, and nobody knows about it, nobody talks about it, you can’t see it, but there’s so many health issues associated with it. I go into classrooms and I ask kids, as a way to start the conversation about environmental justice, “Who knows someone with asthma?” and every single person raises their hand. And I’m like, “What if that’s not normal?”

Dante: Right, that’s the thing, whenever we take people on Toxic Tours of the south side of the city, we let folks know, 2007-2008, the Curtis Bay zip code was the most toxic in the country and it’s still in the top 100 now. There’s a report that came out in 2017 called “Trouble in the Air” and Baltimore ranks as the 7th worst area for number of code orange and code red ozone days in the whole country. And then the Asthma and Allergy Foundation ranks asthma capitals across the country every year, and this past year, Baltimore ranked 19th of the 100 worst places to live in the country with asthma.

So, yeah, it’s an $82 billion loss in productivity, missed school and medical costs, and when you break that down to Baltimore’s level it’s like $156 million every year lost in productivity, people not being able to go in or having to stay in the hospital or whatever.

I think it’s really important for a Mayoral candidate or anyone who wants to get into this area to make those intersections known, because you could conquer so many components of our ills by registering that things like the climate crisis are a serious thing here. We’re due to have a climate like anywhere from Nashville, Tennessee to northern Mississippi by 2050, and increased heat means increased violence, so that’s another intersectional bit that we have to pay attention to.

If you’re not going to make those connections and try to face them then you’re not getting anywhere, and that’s why I decided to get in the race, because I think a lot of people want to approach this from a very reactive-reactive-reactive way, and $2.5 billion over five years later spent on BPD and they haven’t really done anything…

Abby: Well, they’ve done some things! Not helpful things.

Dante: Haha, yeah, exactly. So I’m trying to underscore that, if you could provide a 66% tree canopy coverage for the city, the impact that would have on communities like a Curtis Bay, like a Cherry Hill or a Westport, or even a Park Heights, to be able to provide that shade, provide that cooler, cleaner air and the impact that has on families, on children. And that’s also a job creator, planting those trees, pulling up that sidewalk, creating permeable sidewalk so you can diminish runoff, which is another part of my plan. I’ve been trying to convey that to folks in this race, because we could create 4,000 jobs in this city simply from going towards a 70% diversion rate. Residentially we’re at, like, 15%, so there’s a lot of work to do, but that means there’s a lot of jobs to be created.

I’m hoping that people register that that’s different, that’s going outside of the box, that’s going against the status quo. People have the option for a revolutionary candidate in me, and I hope they want to be a part of that revolution. I’m like a younger, Black Bernie, I guess. I think people are starting to register that at these forums. When they ask questions I answer those questions because I don’t want to just speak in platitudes, I want to give people the exact plan I have so that way, come January 2021, people know, ok, this is about to go down, and they will see physical changes in the way the city is approached, rather than something that’s 5, 10, 20 years down the road like a Port Covington.

*

Next week, more of my conversation with Dante. If you want to read up on his campaign in the meantime, visit: https://dcs4bmore.org/

THIS Friday is Keith Davis Jr.’s sentencing hearing at the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse at 9am. The day he’ll learn how many decades of his life he’ll lose for the crime of being shot by the police. Please come out and support: https://www.facebook.com/events/602379147260136/

#OneBaltimore #DanteSwinton #BaltimoreMayoralRace

Cultural Event of the Week: Art with a Heart is an amazing local organization that provided 12,000 classes in the visual arts to city students last year. On Sunday, 3/1, they’ll be kicking off their 20th year with an open house. Join them for light fare, drinks, cake, and celebration at their cool and beautiful HQ on the Jones Falls, where you can also view and purchase student and community made art!

https://www.facebook.com/events/168100507838643/

Green Event of the Week: This Saturday, 2/29, the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition will be holding a ballot launch for a regional transit authority that would give localities like Baltimore more control over planning our own transit, which is now wholly in the hands of the state. The event will feature a collective poster exhibit, a crankie performance from visual artist Maura Dwyer, story-telling from local people dependent on transit, and break-out sessions.

https://www.facebook.com/events/2560377074246294/

Dante, outside Paper Moon after our interview…
…and giving testimony to the Environment & Transportation Committee in Annapolis where I happened to run into him again a few days later.

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