Stung by a municipal zoning violation notice, the owners of a $26 million medical-waste incinerator in Hawkins Point have threatened to sue the city so they can burn out-of-state wastes at the plant.
"They told me that they had an obligation to their bond-holders to eliminate the restriction" contained in an ordinance that allowed the construction of the plant last year, Mayor Kurt Schmoke said yesterday. "I was not happy with what I heard."
The restriction allows the plant to accept only medical waste that is generated in the Baltimore region.
After discovering that the plant was accepting out-of-state waste, the Schmoke administration last month cited the incinerator owners for operating without a required "occupancy" permit, a violation that carries a $500-a-day fine.
Schmoke said that the citation was the best way to get the matter to court and attempt to enforce the restrictions in the ordinance. But the violation notice is being appealed by the plant's owners, Medical Waste Associates, who say they are in compliance with zoning laws.
The case is expected to be heard by the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, but no hearing date has yet been set, says a spokesman for the board. The case can be appealed to Circuit Court by either party after the zoning board makes a decision.
In a March 8 letter, the city cited the incinerator's owners for operating without a "certificate of occupancy," a document issued by the city's Department of Housing and Community Development.
But officials of Medical Waste said they have a temporary occupancy permit that allows for ongoing "tests" at the plant.
The tests, which require the burning of 85 tons of trash a day, are being conducted by the firm that built the incinerator, which has a capacity of 150 tons, Medical Waste officials said. They also said that the tests will eventually require the burning of 127 tons of waste a day before they are completed.
"There is a distinction between a testing period and use of the facility," says William Boucher 3rd, chairman of Medical Waste. "The 'use' will come after we receive our various environmental permits and go into full operation."
Boucher says the firm will apply for a standard occupancy permit before the facility begins full operation, probably by June.
The zoning violation is the latest problem for the incinerator, which was built with the strong support of Schmoke despite intense criticism from neighborhood groups.
"I got involved with what I knew would be a controversial issue because I felt we had an obligation to take care of the medical waste generated here in an environmentally sound way," Schmoke said.
Before the zoning violation was issued, Schmoke said he considered the burning of out-of-state waste at the incinerator a violation of the construction ordinance. And, he said, he told Medical Waste to stop accepting out-of-state waste or shut down. But that mayoral edict thus far has had no effect.
"The order has not changed our testing program," which requires such volume that waste needs to be carted in from elsewhere, Boucher says. "The prohibition against where we get the waste does not apply because the incinerator is not in use. It is in testing."
Once the incinerator is fully operational, Boucher says, all of the waste burned there will be from the Baltimore region.