Incinerator Poses Thorny Questions

February 15, 1993

Operators of incinerators are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain permits to update or expand them. Community groups and environmentalists are setting roadblocks to new waste burners.

In Baltimore, the City Council passed a moratorium in June, banning the construction of new incinerators or expansion of old ones for five years. Yet only five months later, the problem is again before the council. Operators of a medical waste incinerator in Hawkins Point want to have their agreement with the city amended so that they can burn garbage from a larger area.

Just 17 months after opening the facility, Medical Waste Associates argued its operating costs had been one-third higher than anticipated. It said that in order to make a profit it needed to be able to accept unseparated hospital waste from Montgomery, Prince George's and Carroll counties besides Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties.

This would seem to be a reasonable request. Yet it is in trouble in a largely hostile Baltimore City Council. Not only are nearby residential communities against any additional incinerator burning but the request comes after protracted legal wrangling between the city and the Medical Waste partnership about the plant's previous operation.

In its effort to broaden the catchment area, Medical Waste Associates has enlisted the aid of the Maryland Hospital Association, which argues that a regional medical waste incinerator is far preferable to various hospitals having their own, separate incinerators. We accepted this argument when the original building permit was sought for the Hawkins Point incinerator. It turned out, though, that a number of area hospitals dropped out. Several of them -- including University Hospital -- have since built their own state-of-the-art incinerators.

At the time, a centralized incinerator for hospitals seemed to make sense. It still does. Yet we are beginning to wonder about the accuracy of the burner's projected operating costs. What happens if the proposed new catchment area isn't large enough to make the plant profitable?

The City Council's land-use committee will try to sort out these questions. "We are not financial counselors, we are determining the cost and implications to the community and the state," said Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, the panel's chairman. To be fair to everyone -- the plant operator as well as to the community -- a City Council hearing should be held as soon as possible.

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