Hawkins Pt. incinerator bill disputed 3 area councilmen back bid to allow waste from out of state

Experts see other options

New technologies available to process hospital refuse

December 30, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

All three 6th District councilmen say they have little choice but to back a controversial City Council bill that could double the amount of waste burned at Maryland's largest medical waste incinerator.

But are they telling residents of Brooklyn and Curtis Bay -- where the bill to boost burning at the Hawkins Point facility faces its stiffest opposition -- the whole story? Or are they presenting residents with a false choice?

"No," insists Councilman Edward L. Reisinger. "If we don't go forward with this, you're going to have a lot of hospitals that will have to burn medical waste and really pollute the air," he said.

"They can either burn this stuff in a facility where they know what they're doing," Councilman Melvin L. Stukes recently told Curtis Bay residents, "or the hospitals will have to do it themselves."

The other 6th District councilman is Dr. Norman A. Handy Sr. All are Democrats.

The councilmen's argument goes like this: Residents can support the bill and help strengthen a struggling local company, Phoenix Services Inc., that runs an environmentally sound facility in South Baltimore. Or they can oppose it and watch the incinerator company continue to suffer, increase its rates, lose customers and maybe close.

In that case, the councilmen say, many city hospitals would have no choice but to burn their own medical waste in small on-site incinerators, which together would create more air pollution than the large facility.

Some residents say they have been convinced that the bill makes hard-headed sense. But interviews with incinerator experts, government officials and hospital administrators suggest that the councilmen's arguments are at best incomplete.

Yes, these experts say, the massive medical waste incinerator at Hawkins Point is well managed and meets environmental

standards. But if the bill doesn't pass, they say, local hospitals would have far more options than the councilmen let on.

Alternative technologies to incineration that were in development when the incinerator was built seven years ago are now in full flower. In an unmistakable trend, a small but growing number of hospitals that dispose of their own waste have given up on their incinerators and switched.

"I was Mister Incinerator. I thought that was the only way to go," says Bruce Patterson, director of facilities management at Salisbury's Peninsula Regional Medical Center. But three years ago, the hospital gave up its incinerator in favor of a so-called "microwave" unit.

"It's simple -- no water emissions, no air emissions," he says.

To be sure, the various alternatives -- which can employ microwaves, shredders, even pathogen-eating enzymes -- are hardly panaceas. Some are relatively new and untested; others have difficulties processing human body parts or radioactive waste.

But hospitals around the country have found the alternatives such as the microwave, which is used at nearly 50 institutions nationwide, to be effective in disposing of their infectious medical waste. And the microwave does it without the troublesome air emissions that have led to criticism of incinerators, experts and hospital administrators say.

Ironically, many backers of alternative technologies once sang the praises of regional medical waste incinerators such as the one in Hawkins Point. In the late 1980s, when the Baltimore facility was being built, environmentalists argued that such incinerators were needed because they burned waste more cleanly and efficiently than the smaller incinerators employed by individual hospitals.

The Environmental Protection Agency now maintains, in the face of fierce opposition from industry, that medical waste incinerators are a "significant" source of dioxin in the environment. The EPA considers dioxin a "probable" human carcinogen, on the basis of experiments with laboratory animals. The Hawkins Point facility sends dioxin into the air, but at an

amount well under the government standard.

"We can't say one or the other technology is better," says Rick Copland, an engineer for the EPA. "What I can say is that the alternative technologies are competitive with incineration."

The bill in question would not alter the capacity of the incinerator, which is 150 tons a day. But it would roll back city statutes that had limited the incinerator to receiving medical waste from only a handful of Maryland counties.

Under the bill, the Hawkins Point facility could receive and burn waste from anywhere in the country. Phoenix officials, who claim they are losing money, say they need the bill to double their current business from about 65 to 125 tons daily, and turn a profit.

If the bill passes, Phoenix promises to spend $50,000 a year for the next 18 years on recreation, social events, and environmental improvements in the district.

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