Hawkins Point plant reduces emissions Residents don't want incinerator to take more medical waste

December 28, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

The operators of the Hawkins Point Medical Waste Incinerator -- which has come under fierce criticism from local environmentalists and neighborhood leaders -- have reduced emissions of pollutants by about half over the past two years, according to public records and interviews.

Since new operators, under the name Phoenix Services Inc., took charge of the facility two years ago, there have been no violations or warnings issued against the incinerator, according to state environmental officials.

And while records show the facility releases dioxin -- labeled a "probable" human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- into the Baltimore air, it does so at an amount that represents only about 8 percent of the level permitted under Maryland law for such a facility. Federal officials say it is one of a handful of facilities that already meet the new EPA standards for incinerator emissions, which are due out next summer.

"This facility has a pretty sophisticated air pollution control unit," says Rick Copland, an environmental engineer with the EPA. "As I understand it, this will meet our regulations."

The incinerator is the focus of controversy because of a new City Council bill, which is scheduled for a hearing Feb. 5. The bill would remove restrictions on the Hawkins Point incinerator that limit it to accepting waste from Baltimore City and seven Maryland counties. The incinerator now uses 65 tons of its 150-ton-a-day capacity, and is not making a profit, its operators say.

Environmentalists and neighborhood leaders in Brooklyn and Curtis Bay have criticized the southern city facility. Medical waste incinerators are a chief source of dioxin, and the neighbors believe the bill would make their area a "dumping ground" for medical waste from all over the East Coast.

"We know about the emissions being down, but what good is it going to do if they're allowed to increase their output and burn more waste?" asks Dolores Barnes, president of Concerned Citizens for a Better Brooklyn. "We all agree they're doing their job and are decent people to sit down with. But we don't think it's the city's job to guarantee their profits."

The incinerator's operator, Phoenix Services Inc., predicts a slight increase in emissions if the bill passes; outside experts say it is hard to evaluate that claim until the burning begins. What is clear, though, is that the recent performance of the incinerator stands in stark contrast to serious problems during its first four years of operation.

Between its opening in 1990 and its bankruptcy in 1994, Medical Waste Associates Inc. was caught illegally importing out-of-state waste, and was forced to pay thousands of dollars to settle state pollution charges. "We had nothing but broken promises," says Doris McGuigan, a Brooklyn neighborhood activist.

In making its case to residents during the current fight, Phoenix Services has taken pains to note that it is a new company with new operators. Together, the founding partners of Medical Waste Associates, which filed for bankruptcy in 1994, retain less than a 1 percent share in Phoenix.

But the distinction seems lost on many residents and environmentalists. And the timing of the bill doesn't help, coming on the heels of fierce debate in the government and in the scientific community about dioxins, a family of compounds created as byproducts of manufacturing and waste incineration.

Many environmentalists and some government officials argue that the government needs stricter standards for the paper, chemical and waste disposal industries. A few states have imposed moratoriums on the construction of new medical waste incinerators.

In addition to dioxins, the medical waste incinerator also produces pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide.

"I respect the environmental advocates' concerns about incineration, but waste disposal is not a simple problem," says Richard Montgomery, Phoenix's president. "And we are very proud of the record we've had here the past two years."

Montgomery says his company has been losing money and needs the bill to become profitable and to ensure the long-term health of an employer of 74 people.

Even if the "collar is lifted," as Montgomery describes it, "this plant is never going to be a home run" as a profit-maker, he concedes. But Montgomery says the company can be more competitive with two other southern Baltimore medical waste disposal businesses that do not operate under geographic restrictions. Without the bill, he adds, Phoenix may not even be able to maintain the level of service and repair it has in the past two years.

That is a particularly awkward piece of Phoenix's argument. Some experts, who have seen it used by incinerators in other parts of the country, believe it constitutes a threat: help us, or we may not be able to afford to be responsible.

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