Go-Ahead for Burner Expansion

June 24, 1993

Trying to win approval for waste incinerators these days is virtually impossible. Despite assurances by experts that modern technology enables high-temperature incineration without health hazards, politicians and voters are leery.

Baltimore is no exception. Just a year ago, the City Council fought Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and adopted a five-year moratorium that forbids the expansion or modification of incinerators.

Despite that strict moratorium, the council recently showed remarkable flexibility in coping with the complexities of the waste-management issue. It rejected simplistic arguments and voted to allow Medical Waste Associates' existing 150 ton-a-day hospital refuse burner in Hawkins Point to widen its catchment area.

The council did the right thing. To pull the plug on the Hawkins Point facility would have endangered a $24 million state guarantee. A number of other lien-holders -- from subcontractors to the city -- also might have lost money.

"I voted for the incinerator, holding my nose, because both sides stunk," Councilman Anthony Ambridge said after the 11-6 decision.

It is easy to understand his sentiment. Smelling blood, the beleaguered incinerator firm's rivals descended on the City Council like vultures. They said they could dispose of hospital waste cheaper and more efficiently. They argued the Hawkins Point incinerator's existence discouraged participating hospitals from recycling and therefore hurt city efforts to meet a state recycling mandate.

Medical Waste Associates, for its part, could offer no convincing defense. Although its principals include many civic-minded Baltimoreans, the outfit has established a lamentable record of broken promises and deception so far.

Yet its fundamental premise -- that hospital waste would be best disposed of at a central facility -- remains one to which this newspaper subscribes. We strongly believe that waste management is an area where aggressive regionalism can and should be practiced.

The City Council's thoughtful action is particularly commendable because it was preceded by some of the strongest strong-arming exercised by lobbyists in recent years. The vote itself was taken in a confused and emotional meeting, where Council President Mary Pat Clarke shamelessly tried to use her position to kill the request. In the end, the council did itself proud and forced Ms. Clarke to let the majority rule.

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