Some of the most intense behind-the-scenes jockeying see in years is going as the City Council prepares to vote Monday on whether to allow the Medical Waste Associates' controversial Hawkins Point incinerator to expand its service area.
Owners are making feverish last-minute appeals, saying the facility will go under unless their request is granted. Competitors, smelling blood, are watching the situation like vultures. And none of the adjoining residents either in the city or Anne Arundel County seems to be neutral.
Despite lengthy hearings during the legislative process, the City Council's 18 members are hopelessly divided. "I think it's going to be a close call," 1st District Councilman John Cain says of the decision which may seal the fate of the incinerator.
When it was built three years ago, the Hawkins Point incinerator was financed through a state-guaranteed $24 million economic development revenue bond. The project was advertised to investors as the "largest integrated medical waste facility in the United States," using "the best available burning and pollution control technology."
It soon became evident that "the largest" and "the best" left much to be desired. The plant was riddled with operational deficiencies. Cost calculations were faulty. When the incinerator could not drum up enough business from hospitals within its permitted catchment area, it sneaked more from outside. This triggered a protracted legal wrangle with the city and bad feelings that still persist.
Belatedly, Medical Waste Associates applied for an expansion of its service area to include Montgomery, Prince George's, Howard and Carroll counties, in addition to Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties. But even as that request -- which comes to a vote Monday -- was being considered, information was leaked out that the company owes the city considerable sums in unpaid tipping fees and other charges.
In brief, the City Council is dealing with quite a mess. No wonder few of its members feel any sympathy toward Medical Waste Associates, even though several politically well-connected people are among its principals. "We are asked to bail out a bad business decision," says 2nd District Councilman Anthony Ambridge.
The Schmoke administration supports Medical Waste Associates' request. If the council deems that expansion of the service area is justified, it needs also to send a clear message to Medical Waste Associates that it will get no more favors. The incinerator has to swim or sink according to the economic laws that apply to everyone else.