Some residents call to close medical waste incinerator

Phoenix Services has repeatedly exceeded limit for mercury air pollution

December 16, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

A group of more than 50 residents of the Curtis Bay neighborhood in Baltimore called yesterday for the closure of a medical waste incinerator that has repeatedly violated legal limits for mercury air pollution.

"Allowing Phoenix [Services Inc.] to continue to emit pollution is like letting me dump garbage on my neighbor's lawn -- except that in Phoenix's case, the pollution is toxic," Patrick Moylan, president of Concerned Citizens for a Better Brooklyn, told the audience at a news conference at the Curtis Bay Recreation Center on Filbert Street.

Representatives of an environmental advocacy organization at the event suggested that Maryland should ban medical waste incineration, replacing it with steam disinfection and burial of contaminated waste.

"It is irresponsible for us to be burning this waste and exposing ourselves to these toxins when we don't have to," said Chris Fick, field organizer for the Maryland Public Interest Research Group.

The Phoenix incinerator on Hawkins Point Road -- one of the largest burners of medical waste in the nation -- has been in negotiations with the Maryland Department of the Environment over cleanup plans since March. That was when the state attorney general's office notified the firm that it could face legal action for breaking air pollution limits more than 400 times in two years.

Dr. Richard Humphrey, an associate professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a former president of Baltimore Physicians for Social Responsibility, told the audience yesterday that pollution from the smokestacks of the nearby incinerator -- which burns old blood pressure gauges and other medical instruments with mercury in them -- drifts into the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways, where it gets into fish that people eat. Fish tainted with mercury can cause brain damage in children when it is eaten by the young or pregnant women.

"Our children are too important to allow corporate profit from a medical incinerator to damage our children's health and future," said Humphrey.

Michael Powell, a Phoenix attorney, did not return a phone call for comment yesterday, but he said Tuesday that the company is considering attaching bag-like devices to the smokestacks to catch mercury pollution. It is also working with the hospitals that supply the incinerator with waste to urge them to separate out mercury and dispose of it separately, Powell said.

Richard McIntire, an MDE spokesman, said the state is continuing to meet with the owners to urge them to stop the violations.

Frank Monius, assistant vice president of the Maryland Hospital Association, said a ban on medical incineration wouldn't be practical. Shutting down the Phoenix plant -- a move requested by four local legislators -- would hurt the hospitals that rely on the incinerator, Monius said.

"There are still about 18 hospitals that depend on that incinerator for the disposal of their waste, and they still have contracts, and some of those contracts are 20-year contracts," said Monius. "They can't just close."

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