Lawmakers seek closure of incinerator

Phoenix Services burns medical waste in the city

December 15, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

A medical waste incinerator near Baltimore's industrial waterfront has violated limits for mercury, soot and other air pollutants more than 400 times over the past two years, prompting three state legislators and a city councilman to demand that the state shut it down.

The Phoenix Services Inc. incinerator on Hawkins Point Road near Curtis Bay is responsible for about 5 percent of the mercury pollution from the state's smokestacks and contaminating fish in the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways, according to a study by the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, an environmental advocacy organization.

The toxin can cause brain damage and developmental delays in children if they eat too much tainted fish or if their mothers did when they were pregnant.

"This plant is a major threat to our health and well-being, and it warrants full enforcement by the Maryland Department of the Environment to shut it down," said state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, a northern Anne Arundel County Democrat.

Jimeno's opposition to the plant is shared by state Sen. George W. Della Jr. and Del. Brian K. McHale, both Baltimore Democrats, and Democratic Councilman Edward L. Reisinger.

The state's environmental agency has been meeting with the owners of the incinerator since March 5, when the attorney general's office wrote the firm a letter complaining about "repeat recurrent violations."

These include exceeding its mercury limit by 82 percent in May 2002, plus having 271 carbon monoxide limit violations last year, 35 hydrogen chloride violations in 2002 and 2003, and many other problems, including a failure by the company to test for pollutants as required in 2001, 2002 or 2003, according to state records.

Shutdown not sought

MDE doesn't plan to ask that the incinerator shut down, in part because it doesn't believe it poses an imminent health hazard, said Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the agency.

The state is also concerned that closing the plant -- which burns 70 percent of the medical waste in Maryland, making it one of the largest in the region -- would create problems for area hospitals, which need it to get rid of old sheets, gloves and other forms of medical waste, McIntire said.

MDE is working with the plant on ways to persuade hospitals to follow the law by removing items containing mercury -- including old blood pressure gauges, thermometers and tooth fillings -- from the garbage so that it can be buried instead of burned, McIntire said. He said that most of the mercury pollution comes from coal-fired power plants, not medical waste incinerators.

"At incinerators such as Phoenix, they are not supposed to be burning materials that contain mercury. Does it happen? Does it slip through? Yes," said McIntire. "We are telling them they need to get their clients to weed out the mercury, so we don't have this problem."

Michael Powell, an attorney for Phoenix, said the company disagrees with some of the state's violations and is limited in what it can do, because it is dangerous and illegal for workers to sort through bags of medical waste before throwing them into the incinerator.

The company has proposed adding baglike devices to its smoke stacks to collect mercury air pollution, but it doesn't know whether it can afford it.

"If we can't afford it, we'll close the doors," said Powell.

News conference

Maryland Public Interest Research Group has scheduled a news conference this morning near the plant in Curtis Bay to call for an end to all burning of medical waste in Maryland, which the organization says is a preventable source of about 10 percent of the state's mercury pollution.

A better alternative is an autoclave, which uses pressured steam to kill microorganisms, or microwave equipment to destroy pathogens, before dumping medical waste in landfills, the organization wrote in a report, "Medical Waste in Maryland," being released today.

"Medical waste incineration is an outdated and harmful method of disposal, and viable alternatives are readily available," said MaryPIRG field organizer Chris Fick. "Burning our medical waste needlessly releases highly toxic chemicals such as mercury and dioxin into our air."

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, city health commissioner, said he doubts whether such a ban would be practical, because of the huge volume of bedding and other materials that hospitals get rid of. But he said hospitals must do a better job of removing instruments that contain mercury from garbage headed for incinerators.

"It's a great concern that this incinerator is surpassing its legal limits for mercury, because it's right on the water, and there is a big problem with the ingestion of fish contaminated with mercury," said Beilenson.

The University of Maryland Medical System, among other hospitals, has a waste-disposal contract with Phoenix, and its staff uses a few medical instruments with mercury in them, such as older blood pressure gauges, said Paul Smith, safety manager for the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Phasing out

Smith said the hospital has been phasing out mercury thermometers over the past two years, replacing them with digital models. And it has been urging its staff not to use older blood pressure gauges with mercury in them.

When they use them, they are not supposed to throw them in the trash to be burned by Phoenix, Smith said.

"Every month I meet with the departments, and we encourage them not to put mercury in the waste stream," Smith said. "We do depend on Phoenix, because we need them to remove about 10 tons of trash a day from our facilities."

Dr. Edward Bernacki, chairman of the joint committee for health, safety and the environment at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said yesterday that his institution isn't contributing to the problem, because it has eliminated mercury-filled instruments over the past two years and no longer sends waste to Phoenix.

To view the report, go to www.baltimoresun.com/incineration.

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