Waste Incinerator Builder Left Soiled Record In Maine

February 10, 1991|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff writer

The company that built a controversial $26 million Hawkins Point medical waste incinerator repeatedly violated toxic emissions standards at a Maine incinerator ultimately demolished because of design flaws.

Richmond, Va.-based Consumat Systems Inc.'s serious design flaws,years of lax maintenance and improper operating procedures resulted in a lengthy court fight and forced Auburn, Maine, to tear down the incinerator last spring, officials there said.

Consumat's Maine woes have troubled opponents of the company's latest project, the Hawkins Point medical waste incinerator, completed in October just across Anne Arundel's northeast border in Baltimore.

In Maine, the city of Auburn had taken over operation of the 9-year-old incinerator about four years before it demolition, hoping a $7 million renovation would revive it. Auburn went to court in 1989 to try to recoup from Consumat part of the $36.5 million cost of demolishing the troubled trash-to-energy plant and replacing it with a new incinerator, expected to be built by next year.

The suit noted Consumat's repeated violations of state and federal emissions standards, claimed the incinerator generated only half the steam the city had anticipated and sought unexpected repair costs, as well as other engineering and legal costs.

Consumat, the world's largest manufacturer of incinerators designed to dispose of medical and solid waste, paid Auburn about $300,000 as part of an out-of-court settlement last August, city officials said. The city settled for much less than it had hoped because financial woes left the company unable to pay more, Auburn City Manager Steve Lewis said.

Consumat officials did not return repeated phone calls last week.

Kevin Macdonald, who oversees theair-quality bureau at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said Consumat routinely failed to meet both federal and state emissions guidelines.

"The open and shut of it is they failed to demonstrate compliance with emissions standards rather consistently," Macdonald said. "It's doubtful they were ever in compliance, hell, probably not once for five or six years."

Serious design flaws includedfaulty bag houses, air pollution-control devices consisting of numerous filters designed to capture particles, and a poor combustion system, Macdonald said.

The flaws, along with neglect, improper maintenance and operating procedures, led to repeated violations of visible emissions rules and excessive emissions of pollutants, including carbon monoxide, Macdonald said.

He said potential health dangers from the emissions at the Maine plant remain uncertain.

The Hawkins Point incinerator has been the object of fierce opposition from environmentalists and thousands of nearby residents and is at the center ofa protracted legal battle now before Maryland's highest court, the Court of Appeals.

"It certainly doesn't inspire a whole lot of confidence in this company that's going to be operating this incinerator next door to us," said Mary Rosso, president of the Maryland Waste Coalition, an alliance of Baltimore and northern Anne Arundel residents fighting the medical waste burner.

"But then again, it seems we're just guinea pigs," Rosso said. "There are some real serious problems no one is addressing. It's all just shoved under the rug."

Calling the incinerator a "threat to public health and well-being," the coalition went to court to fight it. A Baltimore Circuit Court judge dismissed the case in October 1989, saying third parties -- in this case, the incinerator's neighbors -- lacked legal standing to challenge state permits needed to build and operate the incinerator.

The Court of Special Appeals, however, ruled in November that the environmental group could sue to stop construction and operation of the incinerator, under the 12-year-old Maryland Environmental Standing Act. In December, Medical Waste Associates, the incinerator's developer, appealed to the state's highest court for a review of the November ruling.

Amid the court battles, the incinerator, which was built and is being operated by Consumat, began "test burns" of medical waste in December. William Boucher III, Medical Waste Associates president, saidthe company received a 90-day extension of its state test-burn permit last week.

Boucher said 20 hospitals have agreed to send their medical waste to the incinerator, adding that it would burn 85 tons ofsuch waste daily by early June.

Boucher, along with some state and Baltimore officials, tout the Hawkins Point incinerator as a state-of-the art alternative that will improve overall air quality by replacing smaller regional incinerators subject to few pollution-control regulations.

He said two independent engineering firms had reviewedplans and concluded the incinerator wouldn't endanger residents or the environment. In addition, he said, the Hawkins Point plant would be the first in the region with round-the-clock monitoring built in toassure compliance with emissions standards.

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